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.