Reusse: McHale has Rockets playing with pace while filled with sorrow

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 26, 2012 - 10:28 PM

Rockets coach Kevin McHale missed a month of the season to be with his dying daughter. He returned Dec. 10, and the Rockets have won seven of nine since.

Rockets coach Kevin McHale (left, with James Harden) missed a month of the season to be with his dying daughter. He returned Dec. 10, and the Rockets have won seven of nine since.

Photo: Marlin Levison, Star Tribune

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Kevin McHale was in his sixth season with the Boston Celtics and raising a young family with his wife, Lynn. The 1985 schedule called for the Celtics to play the Knicks in New York on Christmas Day.

This was a new gimmick for the NBA and not one endorsed by McHale, a young man who was raised with white Christmases and family gatherings in Hibbing, Minn.

NBA rules called for teams to be in a town on the night before a game. McHale refused to spend Christmas Eve in New York, making the short trip from Boston on the morning of the game.

McHale, at Target Center on Wednesday as coach of the Houston Rockets, was asked if he was fined by the NBA for his late Christmas arrival in New York.

"I can't remember,'' he said. "If it was a fine from the league, Red [Auerbach] paid it. And if was a fine from the team, Red would always rescind it, so I don't think it cost me anything.

"Years ago, I was the biggest anti- there was for Christmas games in the NBA. The kids were young, and I wanted to be with them. A lot of things change over the years. Now, it's become almost a badge of honor to have a Christmas game.''

McHale's Rockets played one of the NBA's five Christmas games this year and blew out the Bulls 120-97 in Chicago. Then they flew into the Twin Cities, where the McHale family has a home in North Oaks.

The family suffered an incredible blow on Nov. 25, of course, when Alexandra -- the youngest of the five children, and known as Sasha -- died from complications of lupus. There were several basketball questions asked of McHale in Wednesday's pregame media session, and then a reporter mentioned his daughter's death.

Kevin lowered his head and muttered, "No, no,'' meaning this conversation wasn't going there, and then headed for the visitors locker room.

McHale returned to the Rockets after a month's absence and coached his team to an overtime loss to San Antonio on Dec. 10. This was followed by six wins in seven games heading into Wednesday's game at Target Center.

"We're playing better when we find our rhythm,'' McHale said. "When we play with pace, we can be effective.''

The Rockets had played with a pace that led to 120 or more points in three games in a row. The additions of guards James Harden and Jeremy Lin have made them another of the contenders for the last couple of spots in the Western Conference playoff field.

The Timberwolves are in that group, and a big reason for that is Nikola Pekovic, the 6-11 center from Montenegro. McHale was running the Wolves when they selected him at the start of the second round in 2008.

The Rockets have their own center from that part of the world in 7-foot Omer Asik from Turkey. Asked about Asik vs. Pekovic, McHale said: "It's going to be a heavyweight brawl.''

As for drafting Pekovic, McHale said: "He worked really hard. He would run people down. I thought, 'If nothing else, you will know he's playing.' "

The heavyweight brawl turned out to be a mismatch, when Pekovic was limited by illness to 23 minutes. He had two points and seven rebounds, compared to Asik's nine points and 17 rebounds.

Asik had three dunks in 3:10 of the third period to help carry the Rockets back from a 60-46 deficit early in the half. Then Harden scored 17 of his 30 points in the fourth quarter to give Houston an 87-84 victory.

Was this the pace the winning coach was looking for?

"That was a snail's pace,'' McHale said. "That was the anti- of the pace we want to play. It was 180 degrees from the way we played yesterday in Chicago.''

Harden sat for seven minutes of the third quarter, but as the Wolves kept firing up bricks, Houston crawled back in the game. And here came Harden, to take over the game.

The Rockets made a huge trade for Harden with Oklahoma City before the season's start, then gave him a maximum contract. Has Harden been the player that his coach anticipated?

"He's probably better than I thought he was,'' McHale said.

Patrick Reusse can be heard noon-4 weekdays on 1500-AM. preusse@startribune.com

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