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
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
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
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
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.