Now that's how you start a clincher. The Jazz came out of the locker room with fire in their eyes. They worked the ball into Carlos Boozer (right) in the paint throughout the first quarter and left it to their frontcourt to handle the rest. And handle it they did, as Boozer, Andrei Kirilenko and Memhet Okur combined for 21 points, 12 rebounds (eight offensive), two blocks and collectively shot 8-of-15 from the floor in the first quarter. The decision to force-feed Boozer not only helped jump-start a game that had grown mysteriously quiet in this series, but also helped bench Dikembe Mutombo with two early fouls, a situation that opened up the paint against an already-thin Houston frontcourt.
Yes, Tracy McGrady didn't get out of the first round again, but of his growing list of playoff failures, this may be the most excusable. The fact the Rockets, missing their 7-foot-6, 310-pound fulcrum, Yao Ming, were able to extend a team that hasn't lost two games in a row since last year to six games, was an accomplishment in itself. Unlike one team from these playoffs (ahem -- Dallas), the Rockets gave an effort every minute and forced Utah to execute, a product, no doubt, of a defense that ranked second in opponents' field-goal percentage in the regular season. But clearly, the Rockets were outgunned. McGrady aside, the Houston offense didn't pack a lot of consistent punch, limited as it often was to whomever was hot from three or Luis Scola's often-wild forays toward the hoop. Against a Jazz team that shot 50 percent from the field and averaged more than 106 points in the regular season, the hill was a bit too steep.
Once again, Deron Williams proved himself to be the most clutch player in the series. After the Jazz had frittered most of a 19-point lead away late in the second quarter, it was Williams' three-pointer that gave Utah a little breathing space heading into halftime. That was only a preview of the performance he offered in the third, when he hit four threes to help Utah build an 18-point lead. Time and again against the Rockets, Williams finished what his teammates started and, more important, provided a stabilizing force when the Rockets made Utah sweat.
For all of the grief McGrady received this series, Game 6 was anything but his fault, not when he almost single-handedly brought the Rockets back from a 19-point first-half deficit -- by not only taking the ball to the hoop, but in hitting the boards hard. Sure, he struggled in the second half, but when only one other player scores in double figures (Scola, with 15), McGrady's 40 points, 10 rebounds and five assists served as Houston's lone shot in the wilderness to topple the balanced Jazz.
The Jazz won't have the advantage in manpower against the Lakers in the next round, but they will have an edge in toughness. Expect plenty of the physical play Utah dished out in the first round to be utilized on the Lakers, especially on Pau Gasol, never one known for his love of a hard-nosed approach in the paint. But for the Jazz to overcome the Kobe onslaught, their frontcourt is going to have to bring more consistency to each game. Against the Rockets, Boozer, Kirilenko and Okur seemed like the only players on the court one quarter and invisible the next. The Lakers' experienced backcourt won't give Williams the freedom to save the Jazz as much as he was allowed against Houston. Still, the Jazz have a wealth of experience and a style that could the Lakers into the type of bruising affair for which they are not built.
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