- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Houston Rockets started the season 6-1, including impressive victories over some of the Western Conference’s elite. Two nights later, they started a six-game slide.

The Rockets are hot again now, unbelievably so at 22 straight wins. And the way they are playing, it’s hard to imagine another lengthy skid.

The streak began on Jan. 29 with a 111-107 victory over the Golden State Warriors. Forty-seven days later, the Rockets knocked off the Los Angeles Lakers for win No. 22 and first place. Their streak is the second longest in NBA history behind the 33-game jaunt by the 1971-72 Lakers.

Twenty-two straight victories would be impressive for any team, but considering what the Rockets have endured this season, it’s almost unbelievable.

The Rockets struggled to adapt to the philosophy of new coach Rick Adelman and fell from the ranks of the West’s playoff teams with a 15-17 start. On Jan. 27, they were 24-20 and in 10th place in a tough Western Conference.

But they gradually caught on. Starting with the Golden State win, they won 12 straight behind the 21.5 points and 11.1 rebounds of All-Star center Yao Ming.

Then Yao went down with a stress fracture in a foot that required season-ending surgery. It would’ve been understandable had the Rockets gone in a tailspin without their 7-foot-6 franchise player.

The team’s other star, Tracy McGrady, had been struggling and watched his scoring average dip to 18.7 — a far cry from the 26.7 average he had posted over the last six seasons.

But instead of crumbling, the Rockets kept climbing. McGrady rediscovered his scoring touch and has averaged 24.3 points a game in Yao’s absence. But his surge hasn’t been the only key to the continuation of Houston’s success.

T-Mac and his teammates finally have figured out how to execute Adelman’s motion offense, which stresses the importance of quick ball movement and involvement from everyone. The Rockets zip the ball around as if playing hot potato or keep-away, then cash in for points when they catch an opening in the defense.

While they’d much rather have Yao in the lineup, the Rockets have actually fared better without him. With Yao on the floor, the Rockets were beating teams by an average of 9.2 points. Since his departure, which has forced Adelman to go with quicker, smaller lineups, Houston has beaten opponents by 15.0 points a game.

The further development of point guard Rafer Alston also has served as a catalyst for improvement. Once a dazzling And 1 streetballer, Alston already was having a solid season. But in the last 10 games he has increased his production, scoring 17.3 points a game to go with 5.3 assists and only 1.5 turnovers.

The prowess of lockdown defender Shane Battier, who on Sunday limited Kobe Bryant to 24 points on 11-for-33 shooting, also has been key.

Rookie Luis Scola — previously caught in a minutes crunch — has moved into the starting lineup and is looking like a legitimate Rookie of the Year candidate scoring 12.3 points, grabbing 7.9 rebounds a game over the past 10 games and setting screens and diving for loose balls.

The Rockets have also received strong play from a bench led by Luther Head (7.8 points) and Chuck Hayes (6.6 rebounds this month).

How long it can last is anyone’s guess. But the Rockets aren’t worrying about the streak. While even McGrady has said he can’t believe the ride on which he and his teammates find themselves, the Rockets try to focus on each game as a single event.

“I was always taught to just move on to the next play, the next game,” Battier told reporters. “It’s sort of the same thing we’re going through right now. Let’s move on. Move on to the next game.”

And the next game for the Rockets is tonight against the NBA-leading Celtics.

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