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EFFORTS OF HOWARD, HAYES COME UP SHORT IN JAZZ WIN

By DENNIS L. SILVA, II.


On a night of heroic proportions, it was Juwan Howard’s shot that didn’t count that would have figured to been his greatest shot of the night.

Despite learning that the enlightening emergence of Yao Ming’s offensive talents would not be on display until next season, the Houston Rockets, ignited by Howard’s pride, put forth a tremendous showcase of heart and determination before falling just short of the Utah Jazz, 85-83 at the Delta Center.

Both teams started the game slow and sluggish, determined to prove which club anticipated the off-season more. Tied at 11 with 4:35 remaining in the first, each team desperately tried to establish some sort of offensive continuity. Utah was intent on taking advantage of the quickness and lateral ability of their bigs, isolating center Mehmet Okur on many occasions against Yao.

The Rockets ran early plays for Yao but he was unable to finish, either coming up short on his jump hooks or rushing his shots against the physical Jazz double-teams. Eight minutes into the period, Yao would take his final shot of the 2005-06 season when he scored on a fadeaway from the middle but, in the process, stepped on Jazz guard Deron Williams with his left foot.

Yao (5 points, 2 rebounds), grimacing on his way downcourt, was removed from the game and taken to the training room, where it was later understood that his season was finished with a broken bone in his left foot.

From that point, Houston struggled to find any offensive rhythm. Shots were rushed and 24-shot-clock violations became a staple of the early offense as Utah took advantage. The Jazz ran their patented screen-and-pass movement, exploiting a plethora of down and cross screens for inside scores that aided a 42-35 halftime advantage.

That would be the last of Utah’s free reign on the game.

Howard (25 points, 12-20 FGs) took it upon himself to become the primary scorer for Houston. Using a variation of spins, hooks and post maneuvers, the veteran single-handedly brought the Rockets within five early in the third quarter. Unfortunately, his lack of help enabled Utah to stay patient and wade through Howard’s scoring waves. Matt Harpring (14 points, 6 rebounds) nailed a couple of midrange jump shots, Carlos Boozer scored on an uncontested transition layup, and Okur (20 points, 12 rebounds, 4-6 3-pointers) nailed two 3-pointers to give the Jazz a 63-52 edge late.

In the pivotal fourth quarter, the pride and integrity of the red and silver was brought to the forefront.

Houston scored 10 consecutive points to start the quarter, highlighted by David Wesley’s acrobatic, spinning fast-break layup. Utah would build its lead back to three with four minutes remaining, but Howard, Rafer Alston (22 points, 3-7 3-pointers) and the hustle of Chuck Hayes (9 points, 10 rebounds) refused to let Houston succumb to an old foe.

Courtesy of scrambling for loose balls and hard-nosed interior rebounding, the Rockets gained an 83-81 lead on two Alston free throws before the Jazz went 3-4 at the line to take an 84-83 score with 23 seconds left. Following a timeout, Keith Bogans threw up an ill-advised runner from the baseline that was blocked by Andrei Kirilenko but Hayes retrieved the loose ball and was fouled on his shot attempt.

However, Hayes missed both freebies, and Boozer (25 points, 6 rebounds) proceeded to knock down 1-2 to build Utah’s lead to 85-83 with 3.7 seconds remaining.

On a set play, Alston got the ball, weaved around to the right side and drove before dishing to a wide-open Howard at the last possible second. Howard caught, shot and hit, but the make was discounted as the shot came after the game buzzer. Utah prevailed in what easily could have been a devastating killer to its playoff dreams.

The Rockets have four games remaining and it proves to be an opportune time to play the youngsters. Houston would be wise to give heavy minutes to Hayes, Maceij Lampe and Stromile Swift to see if they factor into the team’s future.
 
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