There is an air of inevitability surrounding the Houston Rockets these days. Like a racehorse attempting to soldier through the stretch run with a broken leg, this club is both admired and dismissed. Oh sure, everyone appreciates the heart and courage on display. But, though they dare not say it out loud, nearly every observer is thinking the same thing: Someday soon, probably at the end of April, this horse will be put down.
Of course, none of this registers in the Rockets’ locker room. They simply stubbornly go about their business of winning games; Wednesday night’s 103-80 stroll in the park over Seattle being the latest. No Yao Ming? No problem. They’ll just turn 12 straight wins into 22. Take away T-Mac? Their bench guys will break off a 23 point victory. The Rockets simply refuse to even acknowledge the possibility that their injuries have left them broken and overmatched.
But outside the Houston locker room, the whispers have already begun. Looking for first round fodder out West? The Rockets are your team. Who cares how many wins they compile? Drawing the Rockets to begin the playoffs is like finding a first class ticket to the second round.
“We hear it,” says Rafer Alston. “That tells you a lot about the players in this league. I don’t think the coaches are saying that. I’ve been around nine years, I’ve known a lot of coaches and I know they’re not saying that. But I know a lot of players want an easy way out [of the first round], and they think we’re the easy way out. I beg to differ.”
Meanwhile, a few lockers down from Skip, Chuck Hayes was more incredulous than defiant.
“Teams actually want to play against us? Hey, you know, if you want your wish, you’re gonna get it. I guess nobody is considering us a threat. So I guess we’ve got something to prove, and we’re going to make something happen.”
To be fair, those who would dismiss the Rockets as a one-and-done postseason team probably do so more out of respect for the strength of the Western Conference than anything else. San Antonio reigns as the still-formidable defending champs. Phoenix seems to have figured out how to successfully incorporate Shaq. New Orleans and Los Angeles have the top two candidates for MVP. Dallas is inexplicably turning into the dark horse team no one wants to play. Then there’s Utah, which might actually be the best of the bunch. Who in their right mind would take Houston in a seven-game series against anyone in that group, anyway?
In response, Steve Novak offers a brief history lesson.
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“In the West it’s so competitive that to say you want to play anybody is probably not a good thing,” said Novak, coming off a career-high 17 point game. “I think of last year; you’re the No. 1 seed, you’re Dallas, so who do you want to play? Probably the No. 8 seed, right? And then they ended up losing. So in this year, I think everyone’s just gonna kinda play hard and not try to make match-ups happen, because I don’t think there’s really a win-win situation for anybody.”
Maybe not. Either way, we’ll find out soon enough. Beginning Friday night at Toyota Center, the Rockets will embark upon a brutal three-game stretch which finds them facing Phoenix, Denver and Utah. Once that’s over, the playoffs will be less than a week away and the true test will begin.
In the meantime, the Rockets will continue to turn a deaf ear to the whispers of inevitability surrounding their presumed late-April demise. Some will call that courage. Others will label it ignorance.
For the Rockets, it’s simply called survival. - Jason Friedman