Sports Nut

This Is One of the Greatest Teams in NBA History?

The mystery of the Houston Rockets’ 20-game winning streak.

The Rockets’ Tracy McGrady makes a shot over the Hawks’ Josh Childress

Like most NBA fans in Atlanta, I go to games to watch the visiting team. On Wednesday night, I went to the “Highlight Factory” (as the Hawks’ marketing department insists on calling Philips Arena) to check out the scalding-hot Houston Rockets, who were going for 20 straight wins. Houston won ugly, 83-75, and history was made. The Rockets are now tied with the 1970-71 Milwaukee Bucks for the second-longest winning streak in NBA history. (The 1971-72 Lakers, a dream team that featured Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, and Gail Goodrich, won an absurd 33 straight.)

Before the Rockets went on this historic streak, nobody thought they would even make the playoffs. When franchise player Yao Ming was lost for the season late last month with a broken foot, one Houston writer called it “a crushing blow to a franchise.” But in the two weeks since the supposedly catastrophic injury, the Rockets have won another eight straight. According to ESPN, aged center Dikembe Mutombo made an announcement to “nobody in particular” after last night’s game: “The Rockets have won 20 games straight. … All the critics can kiss my black ass.”

How have the Rockets gone from mediocre to dominant? I noticed one key to the team’s success shortly after the league’s only pregame drumline left the floor Wednesday night. Houston’s reserves actually stand for large chunks of the game, watching the action intently. This is in stark contrast to most NBA benches, which largely consist of sullen guys scanning the stands for pretty women. Perhaps this is because most of the Rockets get in the game. Coaches typically spend the season hoping their top seven players can find a rhythm and stay healthy. Rockets boss Rick Adelman keeps the scorer’s table busy, regularly using 10 or 11 guys, with only perennial all-star Tracy McGrady as a constant. When Yao went down, the Rockets were more prepared than most teams to play without him.

I was mildly surprised to see that the Hawks gave the Rockets a lot of trouble with their athleticism. Joe Johnson slashed his way to 28 points, and Josh Smith powered in 16 points and 22 rebounds. But while the Hawks may have the horses to stay with anyone in the league, they’re not savvy or clutch. At the start of the fourth quarter, Atlanta’s backup center, Zaza Pachulia, compounded a blatant elbow to Luis Scola’s face with a technical foul for arguing. Then, with Houston ahead 71-70 and four minutes to play, the Rockets had six offensive rebounds in a single possession before finally scoring. Next time down, Scola scored on yet another offensive board. Shane Battier blocked a shot, Scola forced a turnover, and McGrady scored six straight points. Ballgame. Twenty straight, despite shooting only 33 percent.

Yao’s departure has helped Houston in a couple of important ways. For one, McGrady is now the unquestioned first (and second, and third) option. He can look to score at any time without worrying about getting Yao his shots. The Rockets can now also spread the floor and crash the boards more aggressively from all spots on the floor, something they couldn’t do with Yao clogging the pivot (and drawing multiple defenders down low).

Houston is also now a tougher team. For all his size, Yao is somewhat soft, not the type of guy who’d elbow another team’s big man in the kidneys to get an advantage. By contrast, guys like Chuck Hayes, Bobby Jackson, Battier, Scola, and rookie Carl Landry are both tenacious and flexible, allowing the team to play at any pace as well as adapt to both bigger and smaller opponents. Most important, they all have a role-player mentality, content to set screens, crash the boards, and play defense. More than any other team in the NBA, the Rockets play team basketball, and (last night excepted) it’s beautiful to watch.

The Rockets’ toughness and team mentality are the keys to reeling off a streak during the dog days of the regular season. They aren’t necessarily traits that win playoff series, however. That’s especially the case in the ridiculously loaded West, where Denver might miss the playoffs despite having a better record than all but three Eastern Conference teams. Heck, Houston’s streak has only gotten them into second place in the West, a mere three and a half games ahead of eighth-place Golden State. If they go on a bad streak the rest of the way, they could still miss the playoffs.

Right now, the Lakers look like a team built for the post-season. Los Angeles was the hands-down winner at last month’s trade deadline, acquiring gifted seven-footer Pau Gasol from Memphis in the hoops equivalent of the sale of Manhattan for a bunch of beads. The deal instantly turned the Lakers from a dysfunctional, if dangerous, mess in thrall to Kobe Bryant’s ego into championship contenders.

The rest of the West responded to the Gasol trade like the United States after Sputnik beeped its way over the horizon: first, panic, than the inevitable Space Race. Phoenix traded Shawn Marion for the redoubtable Shaquille O’Neal. Dallas sent rising star Devin Harris to New Jersey for Jason Kidd. Even the defending-champion Spurs felt threatened enough to get the band back together, reacquiring ring bearer Kurt Thomas.

Meanwhile, Houston made a deal that attracted almost no attention, offloading crazed forward Bonzi Wells for backup guard Bobby Jackson. The exile of the me-first Wells predated the Yao injury but so perfectly suited the team’s new direction that it seems like a response. Houston is now tougher and friskier (and, thanks to the inclusion of expiring contracts in the Wells deal, well-positioned under the cap for next season).

Can the Rockets emerge victorious after what promises to be an epic two months of playoff combat? The key will be their ability to overwhelm the aging teams (San Antonio, Dallas, Phoenix) with waves of bodies and energy, while being smarter and better able to exploit mismatches than the conference’s younger, faster squads (New Orleans, Utah, Golden State). If McGrady can overcome his historic allergic reaction to playoff hoops (he has yet to win a series in his otherwise sterling career), I think they can defeat any of those teams.

That leaves the Lakers, who have both extreme firepower (Kobe Bryant, Gasol) and superb role players (Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic, Luke Walton). They’ll prove a tough stop for the Rockets or anyone else. In fact, Los Angeles is an enhanced version of Houston. Kobe is better than T-Mac, Gasol is better than the Battier/Scola combo, and the Lakers’ glue guys do the little things just a bit better than the Rockets’ complementary players. And, like Houston, Los Angeles has responded well to a key injury to a big guy: The team has lifted its play in the absence of Andrew Bynum, who has been out with a knee injury for two months. For the Rockets to make the NBA Finals, they might need a team with a dominant big man—think San Antonio and Tim Duncan—to take out the Bynum-less Lakers. The matchups will be crucial, so pay attention to the stretch run. That shouldn’t be a problem—for the first time since the Lakers were winning 33 in a row, there’s a reason to watch the NBA regular season.