Rockets learn to share
Addition of Jackson assists transformation
Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle

at Indiana
(Fri., 7:00)

at Indiana, 7:00 p.m.
Minnesota 28 12 .700 ---
San Antonio 28 15 .651 1.5
Dallas 26 16 .619 3
Denver 26 18 .591 4
Houston 24 17 .585 4.5
Memphis 23 18 .561 5.5
Utah 21 20 .512 7.5
As of Jan 22 2004 11:30 p.m. CT Schedule:
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Mark Jackson believes.

He believes in the simple beauty of a well-timed and accurate bounce pass and the artistry of a no-look laser. But he also believes in divine intervention.

He said this is why he remains a basketball player rather than a basketball coach. And when the Rockets, led by his former coach in New York, needed a point guard, he was ready to answer the call.

"It's not in man's hands," Jackson said. "That's why I thank God for putting me here."

Where others see coincidence, he sees proof.

But if looking only at the simple truths of basketball, there are little miracles. Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy did not poetically time Jackson's return to the court. He waited until Jackson was ready.

And Jackson was ready in time to play against the Knicks, his first NBA team. After having an impressive debut with the Rockets, Jackson is ready for tonight's game in Indianapolis, where he enjoyed his best assist seasons.

"Years ago, it would have been even more special," Jackson said of the timing of his return. "The great thing that I do is I take it day-to-day, game-to-game and realize because it was something that was taken away from me, that it's just a thrill to be back."

Even more miraculous perhaps is that the second-most prolific passer in NBA history arrives at a time that the Rockets -- yes, those Rockets -- have come to faithfully embrace of all things, passing.

Jackson did not rack up huge assist numbers Wednesday. He had three in 15 minutes. But he passed masterfully. And more important, when the Rockets ran into trouble, they relied on ball movement far greater than in the first two months of the season, or in the first meeting with the Pacers when they scored just 71 points.

"We have been starting to pass the ball a lot better," Van Gundy said. "I think Mark will keep adding to it and enhance it, but I really do believe, our guys -- we got shot-happy at one point in the third quarter when we were trading baskets -- are for the most part really trying to share. Mark is one of the ultimate sharers obviously in NBA history."

Jackson also arrives at a time when Yao Ming is growing. He was a point guard under top big men Rik Smits in Indiana and Patrick Ewing in New York.

In five games since Yao was held to 2-of-5 shooting for six points and benched through the fourth quarter on Jan. 11 against Boston, he has averaged 21 points and 13 rebounds and connected on 41 of 65 shots.

Yao has moved quickly to find a better position on the court. The Rockets have set him up for outside shots that have seemed to invigorate his confidence and assertiveness. But most of all, he has played on a better passing team.

"I think it's a lot to do with his teammates," Van Gundy said. "They're going to him and for good reason. We should go to him."

The Rockets have been so determined to work the ball to Yao, he finally was willing to make a few shots, and then repeatedly ask for more. But since he is a Rockets player, and in keeping with the customs of his teammates, they would like him to look for his shots whether they have been falling or not.

"Even when he's not hitting, I want him to keep shooting," guard Steve Francis said. "He'll learn that, as we continue to feed him the ball, if they play him one-on-one, he has to dominate."

When Yao dominated on Wednesday, everything else fell into place. Unlike most of the Rockets' good shooting games when they click from the 3-point line, the Rockets made 48.7 percent of their shots despite making just two of 14 3-pointers. They just got too many good shots to shoot poorly.

"He (Yao) makes us a totally different team when he's effective," Jim Jackson said. "He opens up the driving lane, the passing lanes, the cross-court passes, everything. He's just learning the game. He's just playing the game, playing on instinct. Putting the plays together will come when he realizes who he is and what he can do in this league."

But most miraculous of all, the Rockets' relatively new taste for ball movement inspired Van Gundy to laugh over a pass he considered horrible.

Mark Jackson tried the pass, a sort of spin, bounce pass through traffic. Seeing this, Francis hit Van Gundy with a punch line from one of his film sessions when Van Gundy had described a Yao defensive effort as so good that it "brought tears to my eyes."

After Jackson tried the pass, Francis had Van Gundy laughing out loud during the game.

"Steve reiterated that to me," Van Gundy said. "He said that he brought tears to my eyes."

But in case there was any doubt, Van Gundy turned back into a pained comic during a brief stand-up act.

"That was one of the worst passes I ever saw thrown," Van Gundy said. "No. Hold on. Don't give him credit for that pass. I said, here we have the second all-time assists guy. He comes out on our team, and he throws that type of pass. He made me think he's looking at our game film too much."

As laughter filled the room over something the Rockets had done poorly, anything seemed possible, even that the Rockets could transform themselves into deft passers.

As impossible as that might seem, Jackson tonight will follow a game against the Knicks with one in Conseco Fieldhouse, throwing passes to a 7-6, soft-handed center on a Rockets team that suddenly believes in passing.

If those are not miracles, Jackson can believe again that faith can be rewarded.
Rockets summary

Go with the flow

Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy's loose plan for Mark Jackson is to use him as the primary backup to Steve Francis and then go from there depending on matchups.

"He's going to be a short-minute guy," Van Gundy said. "He's going to play from five to 15 minutes, depending on the game, how it's going."

Jackson's defense was never a strength and likely has been slowed since he's 38 and had been out of the league for almost half a season. Defensive matchups likely would be among Van Gundy's considerations, though he said it would not handicap Jackson too greatly.

"Even his defense, which is much-maligned obviously, he's a good instinctive team defender," Van Gundy said. "He's going to struggle at times with guys. But everybody's got strengths you want to play to and weaknesses you want to cover up."

Friday, January 23rd (All times eastern)

Houston Rockets (24-17) at Indiana Pacers (33-11), 8 p.m.

(Sports Network) - The Indiana Pacers hope to extend their winning streak to six games tonight when they welcome Yao Ming and the Houston Rockets to Conseco Fieldhouse.

Earlier this season, the Pacers defeated the Rockets, 79-71, on December 23, 2003 at the Toyota Center.

On Tuesday, Jermaine O'Neal finished with 28 points and 15 rebounds as the Pacers cooled off the red-hot Detroit Pistons, 81-69, in a battle of the two best teams in the Eastern Conference at Conseco Fieldhouse.

Reggie Miller added 22 points as he went 3-of-6 from three-point range and 7- of-7 from the foul line for the Pacers, who have won five straight and 12 of their last 13 overall.

O'Neal has scored 20 or more points and has pulled down at least 10 rebounds in six straight games.

Indiana is 10-2 in Friday games this season.

The Pacers, who have won six in a row at home, are 17-4 as the host this season.

Houston starts a three-game road trip tonight. On Wednesday, Yao scored a season-high 29 points on 12-of-15 shooting and pulled down 10 rebounds to lead the Rockets to an 86-71 victory over the New York Knicks at the Toyota Center.

Maurice Taylor contributed 21 points for the Rockets, who have won four of their last five games.

Yao, who finished one point shy of his career-high in Wednesday's win, has scored in double digits in five straight games. In those five contests, Yao is averaging 21.2 points and 11.4 rebounds.

The Rockets, who have won three of their last four on the road, are 10-12 as the visitor this season.

The Pacers have won four of their last five meetings with the Rockets, who have lost two straight and three of its last four at Indiana.

01/23 10:14:56 ET