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MARK HEISLER / ON THE NBA

Rockets are firing

Even without Yao, Houston's chemistry and momentum have carried it to a 21-game winning streak. Who would have guessed?

March 16, 2008|Mark Heisler

"I'm willing to concede we're the worst team in NBA history to have a 20-game winning streak.

"People ask why? I ask why not?"

-- Houston's Shane Battier

before beating Charlotte

This is why they play the games -- so everyone can go around saying, "Huh?" or "I'll take a crate of whatever they're having." Of course, there aren't many feats this special since no NBA team as modest as the Rockets ever came close to winning 21 games in a row.

Not that special is the word the Lakers thought of when they arrived in the middle of a civic festival to find that today's featured item on the menu is them.

The mere number 21 doesn't begin to capture what the Rockets have done.

After winning 13 in a row, their world seemed to end Feb. 25 when they lost Yao Ming for the season -- after which they went out and tacked on another eight wins.

They're now second only to the 1971-72 Lakers, who had a 33-game streak, which is expected to stand forever -- assuming this isn't a mass hallucination and it falls next.

Merely respectable teams such as the Rockets don't do such things, as a look at the top six winning streaks before theirs shows:

* 33 -- 1971-1972 Lakers.

* 21 -- 1970-1971 Milwaukee Bucks.

* 19 -- 1999-2000 Lakers.

* 18 -- 1969-1970 New York Knicks; 1981-1982 Boston Celtics; 1995-1996 Chicago Bulls.

Those teams had several things in common:

All won at least 60 games with all but the Celtics winning championships.

None lost its leading scorer and rebounder in the middle of their streak.

None was under .500 on Jan. 1.

Of course, if the Rockets don't match up, it makes what they've done that much more stunning.

The Rockets are as surprised as anyone. They don't like hearing how rag-tag they are all the time, but aside from that, they're floating on air.

"There's no rule in sports that just because you don't have the superstars, you don't have a certain look that other teams have," Battier told the Houston Chronicle's Jonathan Feigen.

"It doesn't mean you have to be a certain team. . . . We're playing so well together and we have such great chemistry, anything is possible."

By season's end, immutable realities such as better teams with more superstars than their one, Tracy McGrady, are sure to assert themselves.

Nevertheless, this isn't about odds that no one can surmount. This is about the odds the Rockets and only the Rockets surmounted to do this.

Making it all the more remarkable, with all the chemistry and the momentum they have now, you don't have to go back far to when they had none.

On Jan. 2 they were 15-17, still trying to transition from last season's coach, Jeff Van Gundy, who was fired after winning 52 games, to Rick Adelman.

Their revamped bench was awful. Returning Steve Francis, once known as "Stevie Franchise," was so fat, McGrady noted, "He's not the player that he once was."

Newly arrived Luis Scola, a star in Europe, was grabbing everything that moved and piling up fouls faster than points.

Rookie Carl Landry, averaging 14 points and shooting 59% this month, was an unknown who had played three games.

At 15-17, they put enough things together to go on a five-game winning streak, all with McGrady out.

On Jan. 27, Utah's Kyle Korver dropped two late three-pointers on the Rockets to beat them in Houston, dropping them to 24-20, No. 10 in the West.

That was their last loss.

If Yao's injury seemed to doom them, they were home for the next four against four teams they could handle: Washington without Caron Butler and Gilbert Arenas; Memphis; Denver, a 12-16 road team; and Indiana.

So while the Rockets were universally consigned to oblivion, they won all four games, recaptured their rhythm and changed back into a red-hot, rolling monster.

Teams go beyond themselves all the time, if rarely, or ever, so far beyond themselves.

The ability to bring teams together separates ordinary coaches from the greats such as Larry Brown, whose particular genius involves lightning-flash streaks such as taking UCLA with its four freshmen to the 1980 NCAA final and winning the 1988 title with a Kansas team that started 12-8.

Aside from their unusual esprit, the Rockets have size, depth, defense (No. 4 in the league) and McGrady, a legitimate superstar if a haunted one after all his failures to get out of the first round.

"He has had homecourt advantage one time in his career and that is last year, but he has never played on the better team in any playoff matchup," says Van Gundy, now an analyst for ESPN.

"He played a great Game 7 last year [in their loss to Utah], but everyone still focuses on him not winning a series instead of how he played."

(Van Gundy, who must have been dismayed at his firing, deserves his own award for grace in handling his awkward situation. Asked early this season about Bonzi Wells' improvement, he noted, "He's playing for a coach he likes.")

Even if McGrady never gets out of a first round, he'll always have this thrill ride of a feat.

When the Chronicle polled readers, asking which of the Rockets' next two opponents would beat them, 30% said it would be the Lakers, 19% said the Celtics and 46% said the Rockets would win both.

As they say in Houston these days, Rocket on.

--

mark.heisler@latimes.com

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