At some point during the will he, won't he saga of Tracy McGrady's ongoing knee problems, the heart and identity of the Rockets shifted from a Yao Ming and McGrady-led team to one led by Yao and Ron Artest.
So far, the Rockets seem all the better for it.
Artest scored 26 points on five three-pointers while Yao added 19 points and seven rebounds, leading to a 99-78 win over Charlotte on Sunday evening at Toyota Center. It's the Rockets' (35-21) fourth consecutive victory, three of which have come since McGrady announced he would sit out the remainder of the season.
The Rockets are now 15-6 in games McGrady doesn't play, and an even more impressive 11-2 in games Yao and Artest play with McGrady on the sidelines.
"He always sets the tone for us, mentally," Yao said of Artest after the game. "You have to come out, play strong and play hard.
"I didn't put enough pressure on Charlotte in the paint early, so I came out aggressive in the second half, made them double team, and that's when we came out and hit some threes."
Sunday was the second consecutive game in which coach Rick Adelman's halftime adjustments seemed to work wonders.
Two days after a 24-6 third-quarter burst took control of a crucial game against the Mavs, the Rockets again took charge in the third against the Bobcats (22-34), expanding a two-point halftime lead to 17 and coasting the rest of the way.
"We didn't run too many sets," Shane Battier said of the Rockets' second-half adjustments. "We just wanted to really push the tempo and let Aaron crate off the dribble and let him run the high pick and roll. Our spacing was a little better and we took some bigger shots.
"But mainly, we got the big fella the ball. When Yao scores like that, our offense is going to get way better."
Yao and Battier led the way in the third with 10 and eight points, respectively. With about five minutes remaining and the Rockets holding a seven-point lead, Battier buried back-to-back triples from the right wing, giving the Rockets a double-digit lead that they would never relinquish.
Both shots were set up after Yao commanded a double team in the post.
"In the second half, we did a better job of moving the ball around so when [Yao] caught it, they weren't in a position to come at him as quickly, and he was able to be aggressive and take it," Adelman said. "And obviously we really shot it well from the three-point line."
The Rockets' ball movement was crisp and efficient for yet another game, a contrast from the stagnation of McGrady's final games with the team and another encouraging sign that the team is building chemistry with the current unit. As a team, the Rockets had 24 assists to only 14 turnovers, a huge improvement from Friday against Dallas, when they dished out 21 assists but turned it over 22 times.
"They have a lot of guys that are unselfish," Charlotte coach Larry Brown said of the Rockets. "They had guys passing up a shot to get guys a better shot. That will always make you successful.
"I don't know if our defense is that terrible when you have a post player like Yao and you have a player like Artest who can post. You've got to help so you're going to give up open shots."
In particular, it's that Yao and Artest-led group, without McGrady, that continues to gain chemistry. The Rockets haven't lost with that combination since Nov. 30, and Artest averages nearly seven more points per game while shooting better percentages from the field and from three-point range.
"We come to the gym and we know our roles now," Battier said. "It's a lot easier to do your job when it's like that. There's continuity and a confidence you gain from knowing what your job is daily.
"It's been a nice change for this team."
Additionally, the Rockets are now 8-1 with Aaron Brooks starting at point guard.
"[Brooks] is a really good player," said Charlotte's DJ Augustin, Brooks' opponent at point Sunday and a Houston native who starred at the University of Texas the last two seasons.
"I used to watch him in college and he came in and did great in his first real opportunity the other night [against Dallas]. He's worked hard and he's earned everything he's gotten."
-- Ben DuBose
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