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Rockets Roll, Until Celtics Put a Stop to It

The Rockets may not be readily identifiable, and may be without their dominant center, Yao Ming, but they're closing in on history with every win.
The Rockets may not be readily identifiable, and may be without their dominant center, Yao Ming, but they're closing in on history with every win. (By Bill Baptist -- Nbae Via Getty Images)
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Wednesday, March 19, 2008; Page E01

HOUSTON

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The Houston Rockets have been the hottest team in the NBA, but the Boston Celtics reminded us that they've been the best team in the league all season. Their 94-74 victory Tuesday night stopped Houston's 22-game winning streak and demonstrated why the Rockets have remained an underdog even as they climbed over nine teams to the top of the Western Conference.

Twenty-two times since late January, the Rockets found ways to manufacture points and play great defense even against the likes of LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. But Tuesday night in a contentious and at times nasty competition with elbows and hips flying, the Celtics physically overwhelmed Houston. Suddenly, even with only one defeat on their r¿sum¿ in 23 games, the skeptics who believe the Rockets are not championship material have their Exhibit A.

The Celtics, playing without injured all-star guard Ray Allen, put two and sometimes three players on Tracy McGrady, and the absence of Houston's own all-star, Yao Ming, was evident for the first time in 11 games. The Rockets had no way to challenge or even resist the Celtics under the basket and Boston slowly pulled away. Coming as it did after an inspired come-from-behind victory in San Antonio, the story line now has to shift from what the Rockets have done over the last six-plus weeks to Boston trashing two of the West's best teams on back-to-back nights without one of their three best players.

Houston, meantime, will face what has become a typical sequence in the Western Conference; the Rockets left a quiet Toyota Center for the airport, where they'll travel to New Orleans for a date Wednesday night with the Hornets, who sit just one-half game behind the Rockets in the conference standings. The Rockets could play terrific basketball the next three games, at New Orleans, at Golden State and at Phoenix, and still wind up on the wrong side of a new streak. It sounds preposterous to suggest Houston needed to beat Boston on Tuesday, but the Rockets do play 10 of their final 15 games on the road.

Still, the Rockets' run was so long and so stunning it remains the No. 1 story in basketball this season. Simply winning 12 consecutive games with Yao playing was impressive, but winning an additional 10 without him was Herculean. The total of 22 gave the Rockets the second-longest streak in NBA history. Only the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers of Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West won more, and those championship Lakers didn't have to play without their best player, as Houston did.

As Rockets guard Rafer Alston said before Tuesday night's loss, "It's almost magical when you think about it."

There was nothing magical for the Rockets on this night. The Celtics held McGrady to eight points on 4-of-11 shooting, sometimes employing three defenders. "In my 11 years in the NBA I've never seen defense like that," McGrady said. "And they played [Monday night] while we were at home watching them play." Told of McGrady's assessment of the Boston defense, the Celtics' Kevin Garnett said: "That's a helluva statement. [Tell him] thank you."

On the subject of the Rockets and their winning streak, NBA Commissioner David Stern told Richard Justice of the Houston Chronicle, "I am quite amazed, impressed" that people have become connected to a team with so many players the general public simply doesn't know. "Everybody knows," Stern said, "Kobe is going to lead the way and [the Lakers] are a great team and always sold out. The Celtics have these three superstars and there's an excitement in Boston. It's Houston, it's a different kind of phenomenon. It's an everyman phenomenon."

Okay, everybody knows about the 7-foot-6 Yao and perennial all-star McGrady. But the Rockets, at least during their long streak, were dependent at times on the likes of Steve Novak, who came in from the development league to beat Sacramento with a game-winning shot; Mike Harris, who started the season playing in China; Chuck Hayes, who was cut in camp a year ago; and Dikembe Mutombo, the 41-year-old former Georgetown Hoya who has done yeoman's work defensively as Yao's stand-in.

The Rockets brought in three point guards to try to replace Alston, who has beaten back every challenger and was the player who scored 31 points against the Lakers here Sunday to help deliver consecutive victory No. 22.


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