Against the odds

Against the odds

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Against the odds

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tracy_mcgrady_back08.jpgI remember when the Houston Rockets were a mess, when national commentators were calling for major changes and that the team was a failure, when Tracy McGrady was in such a regular pout he was talking about being traded and Rockets’ brass only wished they’d find someone dumb enough to take his back problems.

Yes, I can remember late December.

Luis Scola seemed happy. I recall him in the Rockets’ locker room talking happily about seeing the Christmas lights on Michigan Avenue even if there seemed no light at the end of the tunnel for the Rockets.

The intrepid beat writer from the Houston Chronicle, Jonathan Feigen, was gingerly asking coach Rick Adelman the obligatory questions about being 12-14 and Jeff Van Gundy suddenly looking like Red Auerbach. Magic Johnson had just said on TNT that the Rockets should be broken up because the Yao-McGrady pairing wasn’t working. The team was 12-14 and few in Houston disagreed. People around the Rockets whispered about McGrady’s unhappiness and a trade seemed inevitable.

Especially after the Rockets won seven of nine without McGrady when he went out soon after that win in Chicago.

I’ve known Adelman a long time, though not quite as far back as when he was a bad shooting guard for the Bulls who was best known for his defensive hustle. He’s been a successful NBA coach, known more for his offense and decency toward players. He’d been brought in to replace the dour Van Gundy (except on TV and in real life) and liven up the offense.

Yao couldn’t quite play from Adelman’s favored high post and McGrady didn’t care to move that quickly or stay out of the half court game the players so loved to hate under Van Gundy.

“I know this works,” Adelman was saying. “I know it does.”

Now, the rest of us do.

But 22 straight after Sunday’s win over the Lakers?

No, not Adelman or anyone had any idea any of this was possible.

A few games ago Shane Battier said the Rockets were the worst best team ever. Hard to disagree, at least comparing them to the 19 straight wins of the 1999-2000 Lakers of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, the 20 straight of the 1970-71 Milwaukee Bucks of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson and the 33 straight alltimer of the 1971-72 Lakers of Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Gail Goodrich.

Let’s get serious. McGrady is good, but in now his 11th season he hasn’t been to the second round of the playoffs. There’s no truth he was in line to become the Charmin spokesman. Quick name three Rockets. OK, two.

Which is why no matter how great this Rockets streak is, their season and McGrady will be judged by the playoffs.

Sorry, life and the NBA isn’t fair.

The Rockets spend a lot of time these days with the media defending themselves given the streak has occurred with mostly home games, against the majority of teams with losing records and in some big games like against Dallas and the Lakers with Dirk Nowitzki suspended and Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum out with injury.

Duh. Yao Ming is out for the season, Yao being the one player the Rockets were certain they’d keep during the December turmoil.

This is no fluke, even if remains somewhat unexplainable and there are widespread doubts.

There are no Hall of Fame players on the Rockets. Perhaps Yao some day. McGrady’s an All Star, but probably a Hall of Fame longshot with limited playoff success, injuries and various career movements. Back in late December, they were the only two players on the team averaging in double figures.

Bonzi Wells was third, and trading him to the Hornets with Mike James for Bobby Jackson certainly eased some potential locker room issues even though Adelman is one of the best in dealing with wayward players and has had a good relationship with Wells. Though with a team like Houston working together like gears snapping into place, they don’t need any traps—or Wells—to fall into.

Luis Scola is a winner and a hustling hard worker, though the Spurs gave him up to save money. Jerry West couldn’t wait to move on Battier in Memphis because he wanted a talent. Rafer Alston appeared to have a breakdown in Toronto, though Sam Mitchell isn’t exactly like talking to your psychiatrist. Alston is a streetball legend who likes to be known as “skip to my Lou.” I’m sure there’s a good reason.

Luther Head is too small for shooting guard. Chuck Hayes is too small for power forward. Carl Landry also is and is a rookie. Bobby Jackson just got hurt. OK, OK, not yet. Dikembe Mutombo had his age computed at preseason physicals by the rings around him.

Though we should come to praise these Rockets and not bury them.

The ides of March? No problem for these Rockets.  That was right before win No. 22, and Kobe Bryant went down instead.

So how are they doing it?

There are several things they do well, particularly on defense, which was established under Van Gundy, so he has nothing to apologize for. OK, his suits, but that’s it.

The Rockets play good team defense, which is a function of many things, though mostly helping out one another. That’s what people in the NBA really mean about having good chemistry. It is not going out to the movies together or slapping towels in the locker room. Actually, no one does that but fans like to hear that it goes on.

The Rockets have no business being a good defensive and rebounding team, though they’re in the top five in those categories. They’re small up front without Yao and no one’s even accused McGrady or Alston of being defensive, except in criticism about their games and desire.

So it’s work.

Perimeter players! You have to stay in front of your man. Don’t allow dribble penetration (I love inside basketball talk). If you don’t, the big men don’t have to rotate and can box out and rebound. So little Hayeses and Landrys can rebound. Scola, he’d get a rebound between Wilt and Russell. He’s a playmaker, and the Spurs’ dealing him to a division rival looks like it could prove embarrassing come playoff time.

But this is what the coaches mean by chemistry, which the Rockets are currently the NBA guys working on the doctorate.

It’s sometimes tough to describe, like Justice Potter Stewart once said about pornography: “I know it when I see it.”

The same with team chemistry.

It’s knowing your assignment, knowing the game plan and helping.

The Rockets’ players help on assignments, cover from the weak side, double out or switch the pick and roll. No one but McGrady can truly make a play on offense, but everyone can help thwart a play.

So Shane Battier spends Sunday afternoon face guarding Kobe Bryant. It’s not illegal, though I think it should be. It requires effort and energy and it worked. The Rockets do what it takes and continue to compete.

We see those greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts teams occasionally. Usually, it’s because of defensive play.

The Chicago Bulls were one the last few years, running into the second round of the playoffs and sweeping the Heat and Shaq and Dwyane Wade without an All Star. They did it with defense and effort. It’s something of an insult to the rest of the NBA. After all, if that’s all it takes, then why can’t everyone?

Well, they can’t! Or they won’t. Or don’t.

For the Bulls, it didn’t last long.

But the Rockets have the fuel (you know you always need a space reference with them) to propel them like a booster.

Geez, I’ve got to get past corny.

That’s McGrady, the missing piece for those typical overachieving teams.

Though we doubt him often and curse him with the dreaded soft label at times, he remains the kind of player who can carry a team through a soft spot in a game or a quarter. Like when the Rockets were playing by far their poorest game in the stretch against the Hawks March 12, McGrady came out after halftime with 11 third quarter  points to hold off Atlanta virtually by himself.

That it was Yao who went out and McGrady who’s now the ironman also is news.

But McGrady draws a double team. He’ll make plays for teammates. He’s capable of big games, like 41 to beat New Orleans, 31 against the Mavs when Dirk was out. Sure, Alston had a big game against the Lakers, but this Rockets team isn’t beating anyone with its offense without McGrady.

They were supposed to with Adelman. He advocates a freer, open style players say they love. His Kings did because they had so many good passers. The Rockets talked happily about being freed from the Van Gundy walk-it-up chains, but they had become a crutch they missed and felt comfortable with.

So Adelman adjusted, the true measure of a coach.

Forget the back cutting Princeton offense. Few of his players, certainly his best ones, went to college, anyway.

They were 7-4 without McGrady in late December and January and now 10-0 without Yao. So there was something there.

Adelman accepted what they could do, and provided them the road map to what they would do. And what a strange and wonderful journey it’s been.

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