It was just over three weeks ago that Carl Landry was running for his life, attempting to dodge bullets from assailants who sideswiped his car, punctured his left calf and chased him until he hid between a house and a fence, waiting for emergency help while blood gushed out of his leg.
On Tuesday night, Landry was finally back to running in his favorite setting - up and down the Toyota Center hardwood. The second-year Rockets forward returned to the floor and brought his usual burst of energy off the bench, helping Houston to a 93-83 victory over Orlando (57-20), the team with the 4th-best record in the NBA.
"I just want to help this team do some special things," Landry said.
It was a statement game against the NBA's elite for the Rockets (50-28), who continued their push for the Southwest Division title behind 20 points and 16 rebounds from Yao Ming.
But the best story came in the simple steps when Landry first strolled to the scorer's table to check in. It's a walk Landry has made hundreds of times before, but never before had it felt so good.
"I was just thanking God for the second opportunity I was given at life and the second opportunity I was given to come back on the court," Landry said of his thoughts upon entering the game. "This has probably been the longest three weeks of my life.
"Just being out there with my teammates, and seeing everyone so happy and excited for me to be back and the fans, it was just a great feeling."
He entered the game at the start of the second quarter to a rousing ovation, and barely over a minute later, swished his first shot - a 19-footer from the top of the key.
On his way back down the floor, Landry flashed his trademark ear-to-ear grin while repeatedly pumping his first.
In a normal situation, the shot would have been routine. But in these circumstances, routine became extraordinary.
"I'm nervous before every game, but this game, it was different," Landry said. "That first jump shot went in, and the butterflies finally were gone after that and I was just out there playing. I felt a little bit winded, a little heavy, but it's a step in the right direction."
He wasn't quite the Landry of old, of course. His wounded left calf, concealed by a slender black protective sleeve, slightly limited his explosiveness as Landry, a typically great finisher, even had a dunk swatted away by Orlando's Dwight Howard.
But his eight points, five rebounds and two blocks were critical in the pivotal second and fourth quarters, when the Rockets outscored the Magic by six points to seize control of the game.
"Having Carl back was monumental," forward Shane Battier said. "We missed him a lot. Even though we didn't say it, we needed his spring and his energy and his enthusiasm off the bench. Now we can really go forward."
Perhaps more importantly, his defensive range and energy helped significantly against an Orlando squad loaded with athletic forwards.
While the other Rockets' primary big men -Yao and Luis Scola - are solid in the halfcourt, both lack the athleticism and lateral quickness defensively to stay in front of speedy forwards with range. The Suns and Lakers each exploited that mismatch in Rockets' losses last week, and undoubtedly the Rockets would have been challenged in the postseason from an athletic standpoint without Landry.
But with Landry back, the Rockets expect to be able to match up with teams both in the half-court and in transition - an advantage they put on full display Tuesday night against one of the NBA's best teams.
"It was good to see him out there," Rockets coach Rick Adelman said. "He made some plays, got some confidence tonight and that gives him four more games before the playoffs to really get himself going."
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Landry entered Tuesday averaging more than nine points and five rebounds per game, and in that sense, his solid contributions against the Magic were nothing out of the ordinary.
But given the context of what happened more than three weeks ago, it became one of the most rewarding games in which he had ever played.
"I knew I was getting healthier every day, but I didn't know when I was going to play," Landry said. "That was up to the doctors. But they released me [Tuesday], right before the game, and hey, that brought one huge smile to my face.
"I'm just grateful to be in this position. It's been a long time coming."