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.