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Rockets-Heat: A Pair of Pleasant Surprises

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I can’t get October 1, 2007 out of my head. I’m in the Rockets locker room after their 112-100 victory over Miami and I’m waiting for Rafer Alston to finish getting dressed so we can start the interview. All the while, I’m vividly recalling the club’s media day on the 1st of October.

Everyone was buzzing over the return of Mike James and Steve Francis. Desperate for an upgrade at the point guard position, Houston spent its offseason stockpiling as many points as it could. The Rockets even used their first round draft choice on a 1 as well; selecting the diminutive but lightning-quick Aaron Brooks from Oregon.

As for Rafer, well, he was nothing more than an afterthought. Rockets fans knew him only as their favorite punching bag: The team has a dull and dismal offense? Blame Rafer. The Rockets fell to Utah in seven because no one stepped up besides T-Mac and Yao? Blame Rafer. It was just that easy. To be sure, some of the blame was warranted. His running one-handers and streaky stroke were often enough to provoke fits of fury from even the most serene supporters. And after a turbulent summer which included a pair of arrests, his fate with the team seemed sealed. Caught up in a numbers game and having seemingly worn out his welcome, many assumed it was just a matter of time before Alston was either traded or released.

There was just one problem: Rafer wasn’t conceding anything. When he took his place at the podium, he was relaxed, but defiant. He said the charges were bogus (they were), he was there to compete (he did), and that he was in tip-top shape (he was). There was something admirable within his refusal to back down. Sure, it seemed a tad delusional, but it was impossible not to appreciate the New York City toughness he brought to the table that day.

Fast forward to the present where Alston isn’t just fighting these days, he’s flourishing. From game one of the pre-season, it was obvious Rafer could run this team better than anyone else, and ever since the start of the new year, his performance has backed that up. Last night was typical 2008 Skip, as he produced 16 points, 11 assists, six boards, three treys and two steals. But ask him if he’s playing the best ball of his career and it’s apparent that media day defiance is still alive and well.

“Oh no,” says Alston. “Only people who don’t understand the game are fascinated with scoring. They don’t understand anything about defense, assisting the basketball, rebounding the ball, help and recover. The only thing they can identify are points per game. People probably see I’m scoring, so they assume I’m playing the best basketball, but I don’t think the scoring has anything to do with playing the best basketball. I’m running the team, getting the guys the ball, getting us a fast start, I’m defending, and I’m helping get rebounds. That’s the best part of a basketball player.

“I contributed the last two years. Double digit points per game the last two years. Five and a half, almost six assists per night. But coming in we had so many point guards. I never asked Daryl [Morey] to trade me, I just asked Daryl, ‘What’s the plan for me?’ Just like any player, I just wanted to know the plan. I didn’t envision the season would come down to this where I’m back to playing 40 minutes a night but, again, I’m in great shape to do so.”

Meanwhile, a few lockers to Rafer’s left sat yet another guy considered an afterthought last October. Alston has dubbed him, “Mr. Dunk.” Considering his thunderous exploits, that moniker may very well catch on. But for the time being at least, he’s simply known as Carl Landry. His line for the night: 19 points, five rebounds and one monster jam after another. Remarkable, considering absolutely no one saw this coming at the start of the season; not even the man, himself.

“Being a rookie,” Landry recalls, “At first I just thought I wasn’t going to play at all, and I was going to take this year to develop and learn and become a better player for the following years to come. But some of the guys around here just said, ‘Carl, stay ready. Your time will come.’ I got a chance to play and every time I step out there I’m just trying to make the best of it.

“I’m a young kid and I’m just having a lot of fun. It’s really exciting playing with guys I’ve looked up to like Rafer, Yao, Tracy, and Shane. It’s fun. I’m out there, just trying to play with as much energy as I can and try to help them out as much as possible.”

That energy is infectious. Once upon a time, this team was characterized by its penchant for sleep-walking through long stretches of games. The hustle and tenacity which were the hallmarks of last season’s scrappy bunch were nowhere to be found. Thankfully, the Rockets seem to have put those lethargic days behind them. Now, fans are being treated to the sight of Luis Scola diving into the tunnel for a loose ball at one end, then racing back to grab a rebound at the other. Shane Battier hits the floor almost as often as a rambunctious toddler. And even the sometimes sleepy McGrady is revealing more on-court emotion, as witnessed by his roundhouse kick to the basket support after slamming home an alley-oop.

Yes, the Rockets are rolling thanks in large part to a pair of pleasant surprises who couldn’t have been much further below radar back in October. And this odd couple’s ability to keep it up will go a long way in determining whether Houston is still playing ball in May and June.

Can they do it? Feel free to count them out. One gets the feeling they’d love nothing more than yet another opportunity to prove us wrong once again. - Jason Friedman

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