HOUSTON – Shoes off, stocking feet on his desk, Jeff Van Gundy had marched out of his news conference and into the silence of his Toyota Center office. Above his desk, there's the framed story of his late college mentor, Bud Presley, a small-school legend in the Bay Area and the toughest coach Van Gundy ever met. There was plenty of the coach's words in his old player's voice late Monday when Van Gundy was railing against that most ruthless playoff adversary: human nature.
"I would say that anybody who would think that we have two games to win one has no idea," Van Gundy said. "[Tracy] McGrady could go out at any time. Yao [Ming] could have one of those lethargic games."
Tracy McGrady had played the part of a superstar with 26 points and 16 assists, and his undrafted, undersized power forward, Chuck Hayes, took a charge on Derek Fisher in the final seconds of the Houston Rockets' telltale 96-92 Game 5 victory over the Utah Jazz. The Rockets inched closer to Houston history, on the cusp of winning a playoff series for the first time in a decade (and the first for McGrady and Yao). They go back to Utah with a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series, and Van Gundy feared that feeling of momentary contentment.
"Nobody here has experienced any playoff success, except for Dikembe [Mutombo] and myself," he said.
The Rockets have been pounded twice in Salt Lake City in this series, and odds are they will lose again to bring a Game 7 back to Houston on Saturday. Van Gundy's message on bringing some mettle to Utah for Game 6 was underscored with that perilous proposition that are these NBA playoffs.
As the Phoenix Suns and San Antonio Spurs moved within a victory of closing out the Los Angeles Lakers and Denver Nuggets, all hell is breaking loose on Houston's side of the bracket. Suddenly, the path to the Western Conference finals wouldn't be through the best team in the NBA, the bigger, deeper Dallas Mavericks, but perhaps the best story of the tournament, Don Nelson's go-go Golden State Warriors.
The Warriors are threatening to transform the West playoffs with a stunning, suffocating beatdown on Dallas. Rockets guard Rafer Alston marveled, "You've got to be shocked by what they're doing. Everyone should be shocked. I don't think anybody should sit there and say that they knew this was going to happen because nobody knew this was going to happen."
As one Eastern Conference executive remembered, there was a warning sign that this could happen. Two years ago, Avery Johnson, then a rookie coach, rested his starters upon clinching the No. 4 seed and found his players unfit for responding to the ferocity of the playoffs. The Mavericks dropped Games 1 and 2 at home to the Rockets and trailed by six points late in Game 3 before saving themselves, and the series, and commandeering a comeback for a seven-game series victory.
"So why in the world did [Johnson] do this again to himself?" the executive asked. "Why did he sit his guys at the end of the season because it's obvious they went into the playoffs not ready to pick right back up where they left off – especially with what they knew the Warriors were bringing them."
If nothing else, it was enough to get Dallas off-balance. The Mavericks haven't recovered, and on Tuesday, they're on the verge of going down the way a No. 1 seed has never done in a best-of-seven series – to a No. 8. This has been the wild west in these playoffs, and if the Rockets just find a way to steal one more game from the Jazz, a most improbable team will find its way into the Western Conference finals.
Houston's Alston wasn't trying to peek past Utah; he was just answering a question on Golden State. He loves watching the Warriors and envies the way they play. "A great brand of basketball," he said. "But you need some low-post play, some big bodies. There will come a time when someone will just pound the ball down inside on you."
The Rockets are within a victory of getting that shot, and late Monday night, Jeff Van Gundy was trying to sell his team on finding a way to get it in Salt Lake. They've been destroyed there twice in the past week, but they try again on Thursday. The Warriors could be waiting. Wild, wild west, indeed.
- Jeff Van Gundy