Rockets-Nuggets: 15 and Counting

This winning streak is not about respect.

Oh sure, it makes for a nice story. The headline practically writes itself: “Rockets’ record-tying run quiets the critics.” But ultimately, playing the respect card is blatant oversimplification at best, borderline lazy at worst. Respect, or lack thereof, was not at the heart of Sunday night’s 103-89 victory over the Nuggets, nor was it a key component of any of the other games Houston has claimed along the road to 15 wins in a row.

Dig just a little bit deeper and the real reasons behind the streak reveal themselves right away. For the last 15 games, the Rockets have made the extra pass on offense, suffocated opponents defensively, and finally figured out how to put teams away in the fourth quarter. It’s beautiful, balanced basketball. When Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown used to implore his teams to “play the right way,” this is exactly what he had in mind.

That said, it wasn’t always pretty last night. The first quarter found the Rockets plagued by turnovers and poor shot selection. Denver’s defense caught them off guard; especially the way the Nuggets defended the pick-and-roll. Denver chose to collapse on the screener’s forays to the basket, and Houston got in trouble trying to force the ball inside anyway. But as the Rockets have done throughout their resurgence, they made the necessary adjustments and never looked back.

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“They play a switching defense,” said Shane Battier. “They’re so long it takes you a second to adjust. We had to figure out what we were going to do. We made more back cuts and moved the ball a little more against their defense.”

So after falling behind for the first time in a week, the Rockets responded by ripping off a 16-6 run to close out the quarter, en route to their sixth consecutive double-digit victory—extending a franchise record. After the game, Houston players hoped that trouncing a quality team like Denver would put an end to the notion that the Rockets’ run was fueled by nothing more than a steady diet of NBA cupcakes.

“If you played the worst team in the NBA 15 times, I’d bet a million dollars of my salary that you won’t beat them 15 times,” said Rafer Alston. “So I don’t understand who’s a cupcake in this league. They’re professionals. We’ve lost to Philadelphia [twice], and people tried to call them cupcakes. Now they’re beating up on Phoenix and different kinds of teams. So we just play hard and don’t take any kind of team for granted.”

That mentality has served the Rockets well and catapulted them into a fifth place tie with Phoenix in the Western Conference standings, a mere 2 ½ games behind the first place Spurs and Lakers. But no matter how high Houston climbs, one question promises to gnaw at them the rest of the way: In a star-driven league, can the Rockets really make noise in the postseason with only one half of their superstar tandem intact?

“I really think that the teams that will have playoff success this year are the teams that are playing the best come April,” says Battier. “You look at a team like the Golden State Warriors [last year], although Baron Davis has been an all-star, you would say they didn’t have a star-studded line-up. They were just playing unbelievably great as a team. So you can have success in this league in the playoffs if you play together. And we have enough talent here to win.

“We’ve been counted out a lot this year. When we started 6-1 and then lost six in a row, people wrote us off and said, ‘Same old Rockets.’ When Yao went out, people doubted us, which is fine. No biggie. But we have internal expectations and those are the only expectations that count. This is not American Idol. Public sentiment does not win the Larry O’Brien trophy.”

Uh oh, there it is: The respect card. So maybe it is a motivating factor after all. But regardless of its role, the Rockets will be well served to remember one thing: Beautiful basketball got them where they are today. Stay the course, and perhaps someday the questions won’t be about respect.

They’ll be about rings. -- Jason Friedman

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