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MAYBE THE Houston Rockets didn't get the memo, the one that said their success was supposed to end when Yao Ming could no longer be a part of it. Maybe they forgot that you can't compete in the Western Conference without a dominant center and that their 7'6" model was lost for the season on Feb. 26 with a stress fracture in his left foot. Maybe they weren't told that their 12-game winning streak was supposed to disappear with Yao; instead they capped off a perfect February and, with a 103--89 home victory over the Denver Nuggets on Sunday, matched a franchise record with 15 straight wins, vaulting them into fifth place in the West.
Or maybe they did hear all those things and they simply didn't care. "It was like a funeral the first game we played without [Yao]," says point guard Rafer Alston. "But we are a good team, and we still have a lot of games to prove it."
The Rockets' run has been fueled by the player with the most to prove: Tracy McGrady, 28, the �bertalented small forward with seven AllStar selections, two first-team All-NBA honors ... and zero playoff series wins to his credit. The same McGrady who in 2003 as a member of the Orlando Magic openly talked about the second round while his team led the Detroit Pistons three games to one, only to see the Magic blow the series. The same McGrady who last season told the world to put Houston's playoff chances "on him," then couldn't prevent a loss to the Utah Jazz. (He shed tears of frustration during his press conference after Game 7.)
With Yao out of the lineup, McGrady, who was averaging a robust 21.3 points, 4.9 rebounds and 5.6 assists through Sunday, remains the Rockets' primary booster, but now he has a variety of propulsive help. Rookie Luis Scola, who plays like an Argentine Tim Duncan and whom the Rockets stole from the San Antonio Spurs last summer for a second-round pick, has stabilized a power forward position that had been a weakness in Houston since (no kidding) Otis Thorpe was traded away in 1995. Alston, who could have been had for less than Scola in the off-season, had averaged 14.2 points and 7.5 assists through Sunday during the winning streak. Forward Shane Battier (10.2 points per game during the streak), rookie forward Carl Landry (9.2) and Yao's replacement, 41-year-old Dikembe Mutombo, have also provided a lift.
"I haven't had this kind of trust in my teammates before," says McGrady. Sitting in front of his locker following Sunday's win, his voice begins to lower. "I'm a pretty damn good player, but I can't do it by myself."
That's not to say there won't be turbulence. The loss of their big man has rendered some elements of the Rockets' game plan obsolete. Turn 5, a basic play in which the ball is dumped into Yao on the block and the team plays through him, has been effectively banished from the playbook, and Houston has gone from running two dozen post-ups per game to three or four. Moreover, a cushy February schedule gives way to a brutal March, when the Rockets go head-to-head with all of the Western powers.
Yet while Yao's injury would have been crippling last season, when Jeff Van Gundy rode Yao and McGrady and basically ignored everyone else, new coach Rick Adelman's spread-the-wealth offense has put Houston in position to continue its success. The Rockets had averaged 25.3 assists on 38.1 field goals during the streak at week's end and on Sunday placed five players in double figures. "I don't understand people who say that without Yao, we can't score," says McGrady. "We have a roster full of guys who can score."
As he came out late in the fourth quarter on Sunday, McGrady pumped both fists and let out a primal scream, happy that his team had won, and even happier that he didn't have to do it all by himself.