Beautiful. Absolutely beautiful.
For years the Toyota Center has been little more than a sterile, sleepy home for Rockets basketball. Like so many arenas and stadiums across the country, the game too often plays second fiddle to corporate schmoozing. The suits arrive late and leave early. But this Sunday, Sleeping Beauty finally awoke.
The result was breathtaking.
The Toyota Center looked ravishing in its all red attire. The place rocked from start to finish. For the first time in more than a decade, Houston wholeheartedly embraced its professional basketball team and the Rockets responded the only way they know how: by thumping the Lakers 104-92 and extending their incredible winning streak to a mind-boggling 22 games.
“It was awesome,” said forward Shane Battier, who knows a thing or two about epic basketball environments from his days at Duke. “Right from the get go, there was an electricity in the air. We have great fans, and we’re happy as players that the city has taken as much joy in the streak as we have. It’s good to have a city behind you.”
Sparking that electricity right from the beginning was none other than Rafer Alston, who poured in a career-high 31 points, thanks in large part to his 8 three-pointers (also a career high). In a way, you couldn’t find a more unlikely hero. During his first two years in Houston, Alston’s middle name might well have been “much-maligned.” Now? The man’s indispensible.
“Man, he was unbelievable,” said Tracy McGrady. “I was in awe of his performance. I’ve played with some guys who did some unbelievable things on the basketball court and you kinda get caught up in the moment and you kinda get out of the game a little bit because the guy is playing so well. Well, I was one of those guys tonight. This guy was doing some stuff that was just amazing.”
Said Alston: “I felt that the attention was going to be on Tracy. I thought if I could get going early, maybe that would shift the attention a little away from him, maybe they wouldn’t leave me out there at the 3-point line. But they stayed glued to him all night.”
So another day, another hero for the Rockets. If anything, Sunday’s game shined a light on the inherent absurdity of the Tracy McGrady for MVP argument. Not because of McGrady’s subpar performance (just 11 points on 4-16 shooting), but because this—no matter the populist view—is not a one-man team. Take nothing away from T-Mac. He’s been spectacular for the better part of two months. But two great months do not an MVP make; not when other candidates like LeBron James and Chris Paul have been consistently sublime all season.
Besides, championing McGrady for the league’s highest individual honor due to his play during the streak misses the entire point: This Rockets run is and always has been about team. It’s about the hustle of Shane Battier and Chuck Hayes. It’s about Luis Scola’s refusal to be denied. It’s about Mike Harris grabbing 5 boards (4 offensive) and scoring 6 points off the bench in the pivotal second quarter. It’s about Bobby Jackson giving Houston the best three-point dagger pose it’s seen since Mario Elie. And more than anything, it’s about the otherworldly team defense the Rockets are using to suffocate opponents into submission.
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Yes, T-Mac is Houston’s best player. But it’s the way he and his teammates have gelled which has transformed this group into one capable of performing miracles.
First, The Streak.
Now, they’ve awoken Sleeping Beauty.
What’s next? - Jason Friedman