Stop the presses. Kelvin Cato had a good game.
And it wasn't preaseason.
The enigmatic big man, knocked hard for his lazy play and poor attitude, grabbed 12 rebounds to go with 9 points, took a pivotal charge on Shareef Abdur-Rahim late in overtime and nailed a huge jumper with 1:31 left in the extra period to help the Rockets beat the Hawks 89-84 in the Compaq Center.
The season opening win gets the Rockets off on the right start, but an even better sign was the play of Cato, who was aggressive on defense (blocking a pair) and attacked the boards.
If this was a glimpse of what we can expect from Cato this season, the Rockets' destination will be the playoffs.
They needed Cato's effort because the Rockets' offense was awful. Steve Francis particularly shot badly, connecting on just 6-21 shots and turning the ball over 6 times. I thought his play was sloppy for a good portion of the night. But still, the franchise hit a huge jumper with 25 seconds left in OT that iced the game. He finished with 23 points and an eye-popping 13 boards.
Not to mention he nearly broke Toni Kukoc's ankles with a crossover in the first quarter.
Had it not been for Cato playing above himself with the effort, the player of the game would have been Cuttino Mobley. He hit 8-14 shots for 21 points, grabbed 7 rebounds and though he turned it over 5 times, he played very well.
Glen Rice's debut was spotty. He missed his first 5 shots, then nailed 3 of his final 4 finishing with 6 points in 32 minutes. He looked slow and since he didn't play much in the preseason, he didn't read Steve or Cuttino's passes too well.
Kenny Thomas scored 13 points and grabbed 6 boards while Kevin Willis was a big boost off the bench in the first two quarters, scoring all 9 of his points in the first half.
Eddie Griffin did get his first NBA points -- all 3 came on an offensive board, putback and foul in the second period. Terence Morris did not see any action.
On a side note, how many times does Rudy Tomjanovich have to answer the question: "What is it like not having Hakeem Olajuwon on the team?" Hey fellas, this was a great question... in training camp. Poor Rudy ... I've seen the guy have to answer that question atleast 10 times already.
The Rockets must have had jitters in the opener as they came out ice cold, and the Hawks' defense didn't help. Dion Glover and Theo Ratliff both had blocks of slams (of Cato and Mobley respectively) and the Rockets missed 7 of their first 8 shots, with Francis scoring the first bucket of the season for Houston.
When Glover hit a 17-footer just off the baseline and Shareef Abdur-Rahim drove right on Cato for a hook, the Hawks led 16-6 with under 6 minutes left in the first. The Compaq Center was a morgue and Rudy T had to call timeout.
Glen Rice missed his first 5 shots, but after he scored on consecutive possessions off feeds from KT and Mobley hit a jumper, the Rockets were within 16-12. A Mobley drive and dish to Willis for a monster T-Rex slam made it 18-14 Atlanta.
When Cuttino drained a sweet triple with 30 seconds remaining, the Rockets were two at 20-18. At the end of one: Atlanta 22, Houston 19.
The Hawks jumped out to a 28-23 lead early in the second, then Eddie Griffin got his first NBA points: a tough offensive board off a Walt Williams miss, putback and foul. After he converted the three-point play, Moochie found a streaking Kevin Willis on the break (goaltending call) and the game was all knotted up at 28.
After Willis scored again a little later, the Rockets had their first lead, 34-32, at the 6:35 mark of the 2nd. But Shareef Abdur-Rahim was killing the Rockets -- he responded with a three-point play, giving him 17 points and 10 rebounds for the game and we were halfway through the second quarter.
Mobley schooled Glover on an isolation drive and with 4:13 left, Atlanta had to call timeout. Rockets 40, Hawks 37. Moochie then hit a 19-footer and after a defensive stop, found Mobley on the wing for a triple... bingo! 11-2 run capped as the Rockets took a 45-37 lead.
The Rockets couldn't score the rest of the half (though Cato had a gorgeous rejection of Abdur-Rahim) and at half it was 45-41 Rockets. Mobley led the team with 14 while Francis had 9 and 8 boards. Shareef led the Hawks with 17 and 11.
The Rockets built up a quick 49-42 lead before an Emanual Davis triple cut it to 49-48. That's when the Rockets took off. Back to back slams by Cato, then a trifecta and steal by Mobley followed by a KT hook gave Houston a 9-0 run. Atlanta had to call timeout down 10, 58-48.
Atlanta came back, but when Francis nailed a triple, it was 62-53 Houston. What was so amazing was the hard work of Kelvin Cato -- he grabbed 2 boards in a row, giving him 9 for the game, and then swatted a Jason Terry drive.
The Rockets could not put the ball in the hole, and after Chris Crawford drove for a deuce, it was 62-58 Rockets. Jacque Vaughan missed a three at the buzzer, and the Rockets led 63-58 heading in to the fourth.
KT blew by Hanno Mottola for a slam early, but Mottola scored on the other end followed by two Crawford buckets and the Hawks were right in there. The Rockets could not get any offense going, and after an Emanual Davis slam, the Rockets led just 70-68 with 7 minutes left. A couple of free throws tied the game for Atlanta at 70.
The Rockets offense was terrible.... they went 4 minutes without scoring, with Moochie not getting the job done running the team and Francis making some key mistakes. When Abdur-Rahim nailed a baseline turnaround, the Hawks had the lead back, 72-71, with 4:08 to go.
The offensive woes continued. Mobley got picked from behind by Kukoc, then Francis missed a three. Timeout Atlanta with 3:11 to go.
Email came out of the timeout and hit a big shot, putting Atlanta up 3. Rice followed that by missing a three. KT picked an Atlanta pass and was fouled, going to the line. He could make just 1-2 as the Rockets continued their charity stripe shooting woes.
Terry missed a triple, and Francis was fouled on the rebound. He made both, tying the game at 74 with 1:50 to go.
The crowd finally got in to it, and the Rockets' defense forced Terry to make a bad pass out of bounds with 1:37 to go.
Mobley found a streaking Kenny thomas for a slam, ending a 7 minute drought without a field goal as the Rockets took a 76-74 lead, but Shareef Abdur-Rahim counter quickly with a driving bucket off glass. When Willis missed a baseline hook and Francis' offensive tip rattled in and out, Theo Ratliff grabbed the board and Atlanta called a TO with 37.5 seconds left.
The Hawks isolated Abdur-Rahim top of the floor, but he lost the ball as he spun on a drive and it went right to Glen Rice. He called timeout with just over 23 ticks remaining.
Francis dribbled almost the entire clock out, drove left side and was blocked out of bounds with 4 seconds left, but less than a second left on the shot clock. The Rockets inbounded to Willis, who caught it in midair and got the shot off, but it back-ironed. Atlanta called a timeout with 0.9 seconds left.
Inbound to Kukoc, who turned and fired, but Glen Rice skied for the rejection as the horn sounded. OVERTIME.
The Rockets took a 79-76 lead early after Francis converted a sweet 3-point play. Ratlif nailed a hook over Cato, but Rice countered with a baseline score off glass with 3:10 left, making it 81-78 Houston.
The Rockets' defense was there, but the offense was just ice cold. Francis missed a three and Cuttino a drive, but Kelvin Cato took a gorgeous charge on a baseline drive attempt by Abdur-Rahim with 1:45 to go, and the Rockets got the ball back up 3.
Cato then hit a MONSTER shot, a 10-footer off the side with 1:31 to go, putting Houston up 5. After a defensive stop, Mobley lost the ball. Theo Ratliff scored on the other end to cut it to 3.
But Francis popped a 19-footer with 25.1 seconds left, making it 85-80. After Shareef Abdur-Rahim missed a three, Cato tore down the rebound, found Francis who was fouled with 11.1 left. He made both and the Rockets season opening win was in the books.