The Rockets have not looked sharp, but thanks to Steve Francis, they haven't had to.
Francis hit two critical baskets in the final 1:23 of overtime and nailed two clutch free throws with 23 seconds left to help the Rockets beat the LA Clippers 98-92 Thursday night.
The win ups the Rockets record to 2-0 to start the season.
The new rules are supposed to open up the offense, but boy have we been treated to some nasty offense in the first 2 Rocket games of 2001-2002. For the second straight game, the Rockets shot the ball like a bunch of YinkaDares, but again Francis came to the rescue in overtime. Stevie was superb, tallying 32 points, 10 rebounds and handing out 7 assists while picking 3 Clipper pockets. He shot 12 free throws and never missed a one. In crunch time, he was simply the man.
Where Kelvin Cato (0-5, 23 minutes, fouled out) failed this go around, Kevin Willis filled the gaps. The 39-year old Rocket sequel scored 12 points and corralled 13 rebounds in 26 minutes off the bench. His energy and toughness were big factors.
Cuttino Mobley did not shoot well (8-24 from the field), but finished with 18 points, 10 rebounds (Cat is attacking the glass so far this season) and a trio of steals. Cuttino played nearly every minute of this game (52 minutes), which shows you preseason and regular season are 2 totally different beasts with Rudy T. All that confidence in Oscar Torres has amounted to just 60 seconds of PT for the backup 2-guard in the first two games.
Kenny Thomas had his hands full with Elton Brand, who finished with 26 points and 13 boards. KT scored 11 in his own right on 5-10 shooting to go with 5 boards before fouling out in 28 minutes of play.
Some players just did not shoot well at all, like Walt Williams. Walt was 5-15 from the floor and missed 7 of the 8 threes he attempted. Not good. Still, the one he did hit was big, coming in overtime. Wizard finished with 12 points and 8 boards and hit some big baskets in the fourth while carrying the tough defensive assignment of Darius Miles.
Glen Rice has not fit in quite yet... he took a shot (inadvertent) to the forehead from Lamar Odom early in the first quarter and had to leave the floor to get a bandage on it. He couldn't get his shot going until late in the third quarter when he scored 7 of his 9 points in a quick burst that got the crowd (and Rice) pumped up. Aside from those three he knocked off consecutively, he was 1-8 from the field.
Now imagine how dangerous the Rockets could be if their marksmen Rice and Wiz were stroking the ball from long range.
Also not shooting well is Eddie Griffin, who hopefully just has a case of the rookie jitters. Griffin was 1-6 from the floor (including an airball on a wide open jumper) for 2 points and 4 boards in 12 minutes off the bench.
The other rookie, Terence Morris, saw his first action, scoring 2 points in 7 minutes of play.
Behind the strong play of Steve Francis, the Rockets got out to a 21-16 lead in the first quarter, but the Rockets went cold (especially Walt Williams) and thanks in large part to Elton Brand, the Clippers went on a 9-0 run to take a 25-21 lead.
A Kenny Thomas 6-footer fade jumper in the lane gave us our score after one, 25-23. Francis had 9 points in the period while KT added 8. Brand led the Clippers with 10 and 4 boards.
Kenny's field goal sparked an 11-2 Rocket run that got going in the second quarter, and after Cuttino Mobley hit a 3, the Rockets led 37-29. Speaking of Mobley, a few plays later he had a sweet block on Lamar Odom from behind on a fast break, spanking the ball in to the board as Mobley went to lay it in.
Terence Morris got his first action in the second quarter, and got his first points after going to the line at the 5:44 mark. Morris made both freebiews, giving Houston a 41-33 lead.
From there, the Rockets slumped, and Keyon Dooling did not. Dooling led a Clipper drive, hitting a trifecta and scoring on a drive (after spinning right past a lunging Franchise). After Sean Rooks scored on an offensive putback and was fouled (missed the free throw), the Clippers tied it up at 42 with 2:10 left.
Things were bad for the Rockets ... Mobley went to the line and missed both freebies and on the next possession Griffin airballed a wide open 13-footer off the baseline. When Eric Piatkowski put back in an Odom miss, the Clippers regained the lead 44-42.
Halftime: Rockets 44, Clippers 44. At halftime, Francis led all scorers with 14 while Mobley had 9. KT 8 and Willis added 6 points in the second period. The dismal news however was the Rockets shot just 36% in the first half, including 1-9 from long range.
Despite a Mobley three and a drive by Francis to put the Rockets up 5, the ice cold shooting continued. The Clippers tore off on a 9-0 run, taking a 53-49 lead, and forcing Rudy T to try to stop the offensive misery with a timeout.
After the Clips upped the run to 11-0, KT and Rice each scored buckets to stop some of the bleeding. The Rockets stayed close, and when Eddie Griffin got his first bucket of the game, and 18-footer from the top of the key, the Rockets regained the lead 59-58. Rice added a hoop on a fast break to make it 61-58.
Then the Rice got cookin'.
Glen scored a layup on a fast break, then nailed a triple off a Mobley feed. After that he drained a 20-footer and the crowd was fired up as Glen shouted and pumped his fist running back up the court. The Rockets run was 14-1 and Houston led 66-58.
Francis drove and scored on a hanging 9-foot drive at the buzzer, giving Houston a 6-point lead after three, 70-64. Francis had 21 after three, Mobley 14 and KT 11. Glen Rice added 9 points. Elton Brand had 16 and 12 boards for the Clips.
The Rockets' flatness returned. The Rockets did not score a single point for the first 3 minutes of the fourth, allowing the Clippers to tie the game at 70, and Cato was gone at the 8:48 mark when he picked up his 6th foul.
Back and forth we went... Houston got up 74-70, but the Clips tied it with 4 straight. Walt and Quentin Richardson exchanged buckets, but then Mobley amazingly snared an offensive board over Michael Olowokandi and put it in past him, giving Houston a 78-76 lead with 5:30 left.
Jeff McGinnis tied it up at 78 with the luckiest shot you've ever seen (driving and just threw it up one-handed from 16-feet because he was stuck on the drive) then Brand blocked KT on a drive. But Glen Rice knocked the Clipper pass in transition on the break and that resulted in Walt Williams nailing a huge baseline three, putting them up 81-78 with 3:04 left.
After Miles made 1-2 free throws, Francis converted a smooth three-point play at the 2:31 mark, putting Houston up 84-79. No one scored until Brand put in an easy deuce with 1:35 to go to cut the lead to 3. Mobley drove and missed badly, then Brand made 1-2 freebies at the 1:10 mark.
Cuttino drove again and could get nothing, and again Brand was fouled (a pointless foul by Kenny), making both this time to tie the game up at 84 at the 40.6 second mark. Timeout Rockets.
Francis made a bad pass that was nearly stolen, but he got the ball back.... with the shot clock running down he drove and got fouled trying to shoot with 22.7 ticks left. Stevie made both (making him 10-10 from the line and 26 total points) and the Clips called timeout.
Brand was isolated on Willis and he went past him for the score with 15.7 seconds left. The Rockets didn't call timeout, and instead they got it to Francis who dribbled the entire clock out... at the buzzer he put up a 19-footer and it popped out after hitting back iron.
Overtime. Again. Francis had 26 at the end of regulation while Brand had 25 for LA.
The refs swallowed their whistles early in overtimem, and neither team could score. Misses on both ends, and when Rice drove off a Francis feed, got hammered and no call was made, the Clips called timeout with 2:53 to go and the game still tied at 86.
Brand missed a baseline turnaround, and on the other end Willis was fouled going hard to the hoop with 2:22 to go. He made both at the stripe.
Piatkowski got a VERY questionable call driving to the basket, making both at the line, then Willis was fouled again after a nice feed underneath by Francis. Willis made both to make it 90-88 Houston with 1:51 left. Brand was then fouled at 1:41, but he missed one at the line.
Francis countered at the 1:23 point with a smooth and clutch 19-footer, putting the Rockets up 92-89. Piatkowski missed a rushed shot going the other way and Houston called timeout with 1:03 left.
The Rockets worked the ball around, and with the shot clock at 2, Francis drove and drained a magnificient 15-foot runner with just over 46 ticks left. The crowd exploded and the Clips had to call timeout.
McGinnis missed a three, the Rockets got the board, but the refs called an 8-second violation (rule change -- used to be 10 seconds) on Houston. This time, McGinnis didn't miss. He nailed a triple from the wing with 24.1 seconds left, and the Clippers immediately fouled Francis.
Stevie made both. 96-92. Odom missed a three, Francis got the board and found Willis for a streaking slam the other way. Game Over...