Going into Game 3, we suspected that if Rockets guard Rafer Alston played, and played well, he would be able to carry some of the responsibility Tracy McGrady had carried throughout Games 1 and 2 on the offensive end. And maybe that would be enough of a break for T-Mac to have the energy needed to play much better in the fourth quarter, when he had failed to do much in Houston.
Well, Alston played and played well (20 points on 14 shots, 5 assists, 1 turnover), and McGrady propelled Houston to its best quarter of the series in the last period of Game 3.
Utah didn't change much on the defensive end against McGrady. The Jazz still defended him with wings and brought their 4-man (Carlos Boozer or Paul Millsap) over to double him on post-ups most of the time. If Mehmet Okur was closer, he came over instead. Or they hedged and stayed with him on ball screens, with the bigs returning to their man only once T-Mac's defender returned to him. And it worked well, forcing him to an inefficient 27 points on 11-for-26 shooting.
But part of the philosophy is to wear McGrady down so he is ineffective in late-game situations. And although he took more shots in Game 3 than in the first two, many of them were simple face-up and shoot or catch-and-shoot moves. Even against the double-teams. Look for Utah, in its efforts to better wear him down, to clamp down with the double-team and take away his chances to just turn and shoot.
The Jazz might get beat off the dribble because T-Mac still is agile, but making him drive, then cutting him off, taking a charge or pounding him on a shot attempt will work to sap some late-game energy from him.
It was energy that made the difference for Houston, plus some tough jumpers by McGrady. Faced with another poor fourth quarter halfway through the period, he twice summoned enough juice to drive and draw fouls when he easily could have settled for jumpers.
Making a free throw is a great way to get a shooter's rhythm going, and after McGrady made 3 of 4, he hit the two biggest shots of the game. A step-back 19-footer came first, a shot Utah will give him every game. Then a dagger using a simple down screen that Andrei Kirilenko went under. T-Mac read AK and faded to the corner, an excellent semi-automatic read. He made a bucket from 20 feet, with a foul on AK's getting caught on the Carl Landry screen. Landry hit the free throw, and Houston went from down one to up six in four possessions.
The Rockets scored just one more point in the last minute, but it was enough. That is how razor thin the margin is between these two teams, and why it is so important for the Jazz to take a superstar such as McGrady and wear him down before he rises up and beats them.
Rockets coach Rick Adelman deserves credit for giving more playing time to Landry (23 minutes after logging just 19 combined in the two games in Houston), whose athleticism and smarts helped him make a few big plays, including the game-saving block on the Deron Williams drive. Posting Shane Battier a few possessions against Kyle Korver worked, as well, keeping Battier involved and getting even more rest for T-Mac.
Luis Scola did a better job of not crowding the lane when McGrady had the ball in the post, but he still isn't finding many open spots. He's better off staying clear of T-Mac and going to the opposite wing, ready for a pass from him when his man squeezes the double. A quick swing and ball screen would then get Scola's game going. He's best in open spaces against the size Utah has.
There's little Utah needs to change heading into Game 4. It executed an excellent game plan that just fizzled in the end. Shooting 20-for-33 from the line has to make the team sick. The Jazz got great looks in the fourth quarter, but missed contested layups and wide-open jump shots. In a series that has seen them score 21 or more points in 11 straight quarters, they came up with just 16 in that last quarter -- when 19 would have been enough.
Jazz coach Jerry Sloan will press on his players the idea that they need to stay focused in the moment every step of the way. Houston has the qualities of a special team, and it will not go down without much better late-game finishing by Utah.
One aspect the Jazz might look at is working to get Alston out of his comfort level. He played too error-free for a guy who had been out a bit. Williams can both hound him harder on defense and work him over in their half-court system, making him fight through screens and seals.
In the end, this series is now very evenly matched. Alston makes that much of a difference for Houston. If the Rockets plays really well, they can steal yet another road win. If the Jazz play just like they did in Game 3, only better from the line, they'll win a tight game. Or Utah can take it up a notch and hammer a tired but confident Houston team. I think the first half is more important than is normally the case in the NBA. A close game will help keep Houston's spirits alive, but a big Utah edge could prove disastrous for the Rockets.
PREDICTION: Jazz win Game 4
David Thorpe is an NBA analyst for ESPN.com and the executive director of the Pro Training Center at the IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla., where he oversees the player development program for NBA and college players. To e-mail him, click here.
Synergy Sports Technology systems were used in the preparation of this report.