The streak may be over but the Rockets still have a lot to prove

Houston fans had become hungry for a winner. Not hungry like the Chicago Cubs, who have not achieved anything of merit in over a century except losing, but still Houston fans needed something to rally around. The Texans just came off their best finish ever (8-8), and the Astros have been floundering since going to the World Series in 2005.

On January 27, 2008, the Houston Rockets dropped their contest against the hated Utah Jazz 97-89. The loss dropped their record to 24-20, which would have been respectable in the NBA’s Eastern Conference. However, the Rockets are in the Western Conference and this loss dropped them to tenth place. Little did anyone realize that expectations were about to be changed by a historical winning streak.

To many fans, it was time to push the panic button even though the All-Star break was several weeks away. These fears may have seemed a bit unfounded as the calendar had not even turned over to February yet, but given the strength and depth of the West, they were no laughing matter.

Expectations were high heading into the season for the Rockets. They had a new coach, a new system and hopefully they would stay healthy this year. The team started off red hot, but by New Year’s, they were underachieving and under .500. Rick Adelman’s up-tempo offense looked more last year’s snail offense that Jeff Van Gundy ran. The team’s two heralded off-season acquisitions, Mike James and Steve Francis, were non-factors. Francis, a fan favorite in his second stint with the team, played in only ten games before having season-ending surgery. James, also in his second stint with the team, received little playing time and was eventually traded to New Orleans for Bobby Jackson.

The 22-game winning streak, which started on Jan. 29 against Golden State and ended March 18 against Boston, vindicated the team in the eyes of the fans and rescued them from a lottery pick later this summer. The streak saw the Rockets climb from the cellar all the way to first place in the West. This season, five teams have not managed to win as many games this season as the Rockets did in the winning streak (New York, Miami, Minnesota, Memphis and Seattle). The team showed what they are capable of with Tracy McGrady healthy and on the court surrounded by a very talented and energetic supporting cast.

The Rockets also had a mini-winning streak alive within the 22-game streak, piling up blowouts with ease. Their 83-75 win over Atlanta on March 12 ended their double-digit winning streak at 10. One more would have broken the all-time record for consecutive double-digit wins.

Even though the national media was finally giving the Rockets some love, other team’s disgruntled fans were not so kind. They complained that the Rockets were playing teams that were not at full strength and had key players out with injuries. Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler, Dirk Nowitzki, Pau Gasol and David West were just a few players that missed games against the Rockets during the streak. That may have had an effect on the outcome of the game, but of equal value was the Rockets’ loss of Yao for the season 12 games into the streak. Winning 10 games in a row without a star player would be a difficult task for any team, but that is exactly what the Rockets did after losing Yao.

Another point that critics of the streak make is that the Rockets beat up on a bunch of bad teams, which is not true. They beat Golden State, Washington, Denver, Dallas and the LA Lakers each one time. The following teams they beat twice: Cleveland, Atlanta and New Orleans. If the playoffs started today, all of these teams would qualify. Half the games in the winning streak were against play-off caliber teams. Why do people complain when they beat the bad teams that they are supposed to beat?

Two rookies that took on prominent roles during the winning streak are power forwards Luis Scola and Carl Landry. These two took quite different paths to stardom with the Rockets. Scola, 27, is more of a fundamentally sound Euro-style player who played in Argentina for many years and won three Spanish League MVP awards before coming to the Rockets. Landry, an explosive scorer, was taken by the Rockets in the second round and had to fight hard to make the team. When Yao went down for the season, Scola and Landry picked up the slack and together average close to 30 points and 15 rebounds a game.

The Rockets really did not get too wrapped up in the streak itself, as they realized that they were fighting for a spot in the tight Western Conference playoff race. Only 4 games separate all eight playoff teams in the West. Still, some of the players took the time to voice their thoughts once the streak had come to a rest.

“Our names will be mentioned there with Hall of Fame people,” said point guard Rafer Alston. “We have something to tell our kids.”

“I’m too close to the situation right now to really appreciate,” Rockets forward Shane Battier said. “When I’m old and gray and can’t dribble this basketball anymore, I think I’ll appreciate it. Right now, we’re still in a playoff run and have got some dogs barking at our heels.”

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