Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Well... It Was Great While It Lasted

I guess deep down we all knew that it had to end sometime. 33 games is no joke. It just would have been nice to have beat the Celtics at home before opening up this 3-game, 4-day road trip. It's no lesser schedule ahead, the Rockets have 10 of their remaining 15 games on the road. So even with this history-making streak, the Rockets will have to fight to the end.

Stan McNeal at the Sporting News has made the analogy that the Rockets were "banding together like a college team on a March Madness roll," which is exactly what the Rockets have done. They've gotten hot at the right time. But this loss to the Celtics was very telling in one thing. The Rockets without Yao are suddenly very undersized.

You saw signs of this in the Lakers game, when it seemed like Lamar Odom got a hand on every single Rockets rebound. If Pau Gasol were there, one could assume things would've been a bit more interesting. The Celtics came into Houston last night virtually at full strength--Ray Allen is still their odd-man out chemistry-wise so they don't miss him that much. Garnett, Perkins and reserve Leon Powe just dominated the Rockets front-court on the boards. It's not that Houston let up, or didn't fight, they just got flat out beat. If they hadn't already known, teams in the Western Conference just got a reminder that its the Celtics have the best record in the league.

I'd picked Boston to come out of the East early on, but I wasn't sure they could win it. Now, I'm absolutely certain they can. That defense is a monster. But this brings back how important Yao was for this team. The Rockets were on an unbelievable run and ostensibly playing better in Yao's absence. But this kind of game is where you miss him. In January, when the Rockets were down 20 vs. the Celtics early on, they went to Yao. And they took it down to the wire because he singularly dominated Boston... because he made them undersized. Last night, the tables were turned.

But you know what the most encouraging part of last night's game was... even down 20+ late in the 4th, the fans were still there, urging the Rockets on, believing that somehow, with this team, a miracle could happen.

The Rockets now have to re-focus and put the 22-game streak behind them. As historical as it was, the Rockets can't get caught up in history. They have the Hornets again, Golden State, Phoenix twice, San Antonio, Denver and Utah in these remaining 15 games. No settling at this point, Houston must keep playing their game and push to enter the post-season with confidence and a home-court advantage. So at least all of us fans can get an extra game to urge our team on once again.

Originally posted at Yao Central on March 19, 2008 08:54 AM

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Best Team in the League

My boy, Duke, raised an interesting question last night just after the Rockets won their 22nd straight game vs. the LA Lakers 104-92 in Houston. What's more difficult to accomplish, an NBA Championship or 22 wins in a row? 40 teams in NBA history have won a Chip, only 2 teams have ever won 22 games in a row.

A lot of players and basketball analysts like to throw around the notion that success is measured in Championship rings. The notion is overrated. Success is always relative, and in sports, perhaps better served in memory, in what stands out to us 25 years from now, in what makes history. Has there been more a testament to the concept of team play in the 21st century than what the Rockets are doing right now?

Because this is not the Baylor/Chamberlain/Goodrich/West Lakers or the Oscar/Kareem Bucks. This is a team with no Hall-of-Famer (yet), they didn't enter the season feeling destined to win the Chip. If you ask any of the Rockets right now if they expect to even make the Finals, they won't say yes. The Rockets know exactly what kind of team they are, that's what makes them special. They have that rare but perfectly balanced self-awareness, the kind that makes you fight every play. There is no player in a Rockets uniform right now who thinks they're going to coast their way to the playoffs.

In 22 consecutive games, there hasn't been one letdown. The skeptics can pore over the strength or non-strength of this schedule all they want. They're missing the point. It's true, the Rockets aren't this good based on their individual talent. They have something intangible, something that can't be quantified or tracked statistically--except by maybe Daryl Morey. This is a star-based league, and even moreso in the playoffs, so the Rockets may never get to the Finals, but there is no better team in the NBA this season. Or for many NBA seasons past.

• • •

T-Mac shoots 4-16 for 11 pts and the Rockets win? I'm not sure you could have convinced anyone in Houston of that before it actually happened. But the Rockets continue to amaze even themselves. Rafer Alston may be the league's Most Improved Player... in the course of one season. And for all those years that Shane Battier has been snubbed from even consideration for the Defensive Player of Year, start sending videos of this game to anyone with a vote. I mean, seriously, I'll try to track down some addresses.

Originally posted at Yao Central on March 17, 2008 07:43 AM

Saturday, March 15, 2008


You have to understand... I'm really not trying to jinx this right now. But I'd be remiss if I didn't post something after Houston's 89-80 win over Charlotte. Second. Longest. Win. Streak. In. NBA. History. 21-0. That can't be taken back, that doesn't have any caveats. No matter what happens now, it's history. And everyone in the nation is on the gravy train (except maybe the Chuck-wagon). It's indicative of that lost art of professional basketball to which such appreciation David Stern may have overlooked. Fans, purists and media alike, can appreciate team basketball.

It's still a beautiful thing to watch--even when the Rockets aren't hitting shots. The defense is dominant. Yes, it was just the Hawks, and yes, it was the Bobcats, but these were the textbook lapse games. The Rockets, however, were better than that and the fans believe it. Even when the Bobcats went on a 21-1 run early in 1st quarter there were no boos, maybe some hemming and hawing, but as a whole, like the Rockets, the fans were unflappable. Finally.

But like T-Mac, as much as I'd like to think the Rockets' spanking new no. 1 Western Conference ranking means they have as arrived as a post-Hakeem franchise, the true test will be the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday, and then, of course, there's the rest of the week. I won't miss these short of a miracle or a disaster, Rockets fans. And neither should you.

Originally posted at Yao Central on March 15, 2008 06:53 AM

Friday, March 07, 2008

We're Witnessing History

I almost didn't post this. Because jinxing this run would just be terrible on the conscience. And let's not overstate it, this is just N-B-A history. In the bigger picture, it's only basketball. But...

It's something to be witnessed if you're a Rockets fan. Beyond the winning, it's just fascinating. Even with blow-out wins in the past four games, I'm riveted to the screen from tip to buzzer. This team isn't supposed to do this. It's true, you build a team to win, but this is ridiculous. They are playing with that rare concoction of fire, confidence and execution. Lesser teams don't stand a chance right now and it's something incredible to behold for a basketball fan. The Rockets might be the most underrated team with a 17-gm win streak ever. Most people (outside Houston city limits) don't think they'll make the playoffs.

Let's face it, for all that was surrounding Houston during that first 15-game win streak in '93, we kind of knew the Rockets were Finals-bound. They just had that air about them all season. Like Kenny Smith once said, as a teammate, you just know. As fans, we knew. This is not that team.

There hasn't been that level of confidence for this team aside from the most delusional of fans (holler back, Duke). This team is just trying to get out of the first round of the playoffs. Which is what makes this transformation so fascinating. It's already a franchise-record, it already defies the odds and the experts. Every win is another marker for the indefatigable unpredictably of professional sports and by extension, the human condition. The time to doubt is behind us. Let's just sit back and enjoy the ride.

Originally posted at Yao Central on March 7, 2008 09:11 AM

Monday, March 03, 2008

No, the Rockets Are Not Better Without Yao

I don't often pay attention to Skip Bayless--not that I particularly dislike him. He is what he is. But earlier today, following up on the Rockets blowout win over the Denver Nuggets, Bayless said on his ESPN show 1st and 10 that Houston would make the playoffs. No doubt in his mind. In fact, he said the Rockets would coast to the post-season easily. Just one thing, Bayless has said this since Yao went out because he believes the Rockets are a better team without Yao Ming. He suggests they are better defensively with Dikembe Mutombo in the low-post and better offensively with no one else taking shots away from their best offensive player, Tracy McGrady. The funny thing is, all the guests or co-hosts disagreed with him on the show, saying Yao is too great a commodity on any team not to miss him. Only, they didn't believe the Rockets would make the playoffs. So much for picking a side.

Does anyone else find it strange why they keep asking reporters, analysts, athletes, you name it, whether or not the Rockets or any team will make the playoffs. It's all rather pointless, isn't it? Wouldn't you rather hope the Rockets make it than predict them making it. I guess that's the difference between fans and pundits.

It's true, the Rockets have won 3-straight without Yao in convincing fashion, but let's not get carried away just yet. Bayless' confidence sounds nice, but it's still a long, tightly contested road ahead. The Rockets will have to play near perfect ball to make it happen. And making the playoffs, even winning, and the ascension of individual Rockets who must play better to achieve that goal, is not indicative of a Houston team that is better off without Yao. It is indicative of the Rockets resolve and adaptability. The Rockets have always had enough talent to make the playoffs without Yao, even win a series, but they can't win the Championship without Yao Ming, which is the long-term goal. So much for not making predictions.

Then again, if the Giants can beat the Patriots...

Originally posted at Yao Central on March 3, 2008 06:11 PM