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Rockets-Pacers: All Aboard the Chuck Wagon

This is what a 16 game winning streak looks like:

Carl Landry entering the game and immediately throwing down a pair of filthy dunks within his first 60 seconds of action.

Rafer Alston — formerly better known as public enemy No. 1 — electrifying the home crowd with moves so slick they seemed inspired by courtside companions Rusty Hardin and Joel Osteen.

Shane Battier hitting the floor in an attempt to save a ball he had absolutely no chance to rescue, followed by his teammates not just walking, but sprinting, to help him up off the floor.

Dikembe Mutombo cheering from the bench as if he’s auditioning for the lead role in Bring It On IV.

Tracy McGrady offsetting his occasionally questionable shot selection by carrying the club through certain stretches when he can’t miss; and being an effective playmaker when he can.

Luis Scola showing off an assortment of moves and fancy footwork that sometimes seem better suited for Dancing with the Stars than a basketball court.

Hugs and high fives all around.

Those are just a few of the trademarks of the Rockets remarkable streak, and they were all on display during Wednesday’s 117-99 thrashing of Indiana at Toyota Center. But last night also saw a new ingredient added to the winning mix. His name: Chuck Hayes. Remember him?

The Rockets haven’t had much need to ride the Chuck Wagon lately; prior to last night’s contest, Hayes hadn’t played more than 20 minutes in a game since January 27th – also known as the last time Houston tasted the bitterness of defeat. Since then, Scola has replaced Hayes in the starting lineup and the Rockets haven’t looked back.

But don’t overlook Hayes’s role in the Rockets’ record-breaking roll. Remember, he was the one who stood up after that dreadful January loss to Philadelphia and challenged his teammates to make something of this season. Call it a coincidence if you will, but the club’s subsequent 20-1 run seems to indicate something special sunk in that day.

So it was only fitting that the man who got the ball rolling with his words seized the opportunity to make a significant impact with his actions on this, the record-setting night. True to form, Hayes did everything fans have come to expect from him – gobbling up rebounds, playing tough defense, returning to the court a mere 30 seconds after twisting his ankle — and even a few they haven’t — scoring 9 points and handing out 5 assists.

“Chuck Hayes was terrific when he came in the game,” said Rockets Coach Rick Adelman. “He kinda set the tone for us. He just established a presence in there around the basket. He’s so smart, and does so many good things. I thought he really changed things up when he came in.”

Hayes says he’s just doing his job.

“Part of being in this profession is being ready. You don’t know when you’re gonna be called. They tried to throw us a curve ball by subbing within the first minute and going small. We got into a little bit of foul trouble and matchup problems, so coach threw me in there and he’s counting on me to do the job, and my teammates are holding me accountable to go out there and be productive.”

Mission accomplished, the Rockets now head north up I-45 to take on the Dirk Nowitzki-less Mavericks. Hayes realizes it’s impossible to know how much floor time he’ll see tonight, or in the future. With Yao Ming’s 22 and 10 lost for the season, there’s certain to be more of a premium placed on the interior offense provided by the dynamic rookie duo of Scola and Landry.

But when the need arises, the Chuck Wagon is available, too.

And, as always, he’ll be ready

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And 1’s: As great as the Rockets have played in Yao Ming’s absence, they still face a significant concern going forward: Namely, their over-reliance on the outside jumper now that they lack one of the game’s best low-post players. Yes, Houston is red-hot right at the moment, but don’t be surprised if things get a tad ugly when the club hits the inevitable cold stretch. Fans got a small glimpse of this in the 3rd quarter when the Rockets momentarily let Indiana back in the game.

“In the third quarter,” said Adelman, “We started taking the same shots [as the Pacers]; nothing but jump shots, and that’s what got them back in the game. And that’s where you miss Yao. You know, when the other team starts making a run, you’re just like, ‘Okay, get it into [Yao], and make them deal with him.’ But we don’t have that right now, so we have to find other ways to do it.”

Meanwhile, Shane Battier doesn’t sound overly concerned.

“We’re scoring and we’re running good offense,” he said. “We had 30 assists. I don’t think you can run offense much better than that. Yeah, we’d love to have Yao back, and have a big guy to throw the ball to, a 7’6’’ Chinese guy, but we don’t have that luxury anymore, so we’re running good offense and we’re taking what teams give us.”

It should be noted that gifted glass cleaners like Landry, Scola and Hayes help, at least partially, to offset this issue as well. Those errant jumpers are a lot easier to handle when you’ve got guys capable of consistently tracking them down.

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After flying below the national radar the last six weeks or so, Carl Landry is starting to get some much-deserved publicity. He’s made it into David Thorpe’s top ten rookie rankings, and espn.com’s Bill Simmons even pondered exactly how high Landry would climb if GMs got a do-over on the 2007 NBA draft.

For his part, Landry claims he doesn’t care about the attention, and that his place in the draft (31st overall) isn’t a source of motivation.

“I’m just worried about winning, and worried about the rest of the teams in the West,” he says. “That’s about it. I really don’t read the newspaper and get into all of that. It feels good, though, when you’re walking around and you hear people saying, ‘Good job,’ and, ‘Thank you for coming to the city,’ and, ‘Good work.’ But other than that, I’m just trying to win ballgames.

“I was blessed just to have the opportunity to get drafted. No matter where it is, many people don’t have that chance and I was blessed to have that opportunity, so I’m just trying to make the best of it.”

- Jason Friedman


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