Tracy McGrady scored the majority of his 34 points while Houston was building a big early lead, then Mike James and Jon Barry made it hold up in the fourth quarter, preserving the visiting Rockets' 98-86 victory over the Dallas Mavericks yesterday in Game 1 of their first-round series.
"I feel this is my time," said McGrady, who also had six assists and five rebounds. "I'm more confident than ever and I've got my team feeling the same way."
McGrady has never made it out of the first round in his career, going 0 for 4 and stung most by a blown 3-1 lead in his last postseason, two years ago in Orlando. This is his first season on the Rockets, who have been bounced in the opening round of their last three playoff appearances.
This season's mix of McGrady, center Yao Ming and a bunch of hardscrabble veterans already was thinking big. A solid victory -- and a team history of being 17-1 when winning Game 1 of a series -- has them even more excited. Game 2 is tomorrow night in Dallas.
"We believe," McGrady said. "We believed before this game."
The Rockets broke it open early, turning a tie at 14 into a 39-20 lead early in the second quarter. They were still up by double-digits until late in third, then the Mavericks got within 75-71 with 9 minutes 16 seconds left on three free throws by Jerry Stackhouse.
That's when James, the only player on either roster with a championship ring, having won with Detroit last season, made three straight shots, hitting two jumpers and a wild layup around Dirk Nowitzki. Barry followed with a three-pointer, the Rockets were back up 84-73 and their lead wasn't challenged again.
Houston acquired James at the trade deadline. Barry and David Wesley arrived in December. All are part of a rotation of players who understand their role -- like Dikembe Mutombo having eight points and eight rebounds in 27 minutes as Yao was limited to 20 minutes because of foul trouble.
Counting a surge to close the regular season, Houston has won eight straight.
In losing their home-court advantage, the Mavericks also had a nine-game winning streak and a nine-game home winning streak come to an end. It was their first home loss under coach Avery Johnson and just their third in 19 games since he replaced Don Nelson.
"We haven't had many games where we were poor defensively and offensively," Johnson said. "Nobody said this was going to be a sweep for anybody. I doubt that very seriously."
Dallas was hurt by Nowitzki having more turnovers (six) than field goals (five). He scored 21 points, but it took him 19 shots. He was just 1 for 10 in the second half.
"I was too tense out there," Nowitzki said. "I forced a lot of stuff. . . . It was bad timing to have one of my worst games of the season."
Josh Howard and Jason Terry each scored 17 points for Dallas, which made just 4 of 21 shots in the fourth quarter.