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What Crash?

The red-hot Rockets figured to plummet after Yao Ming went down. But their upward path has continued thanks to Tracy McGrady and some surprising contributors

MAYBE THE HoustonRockets didn't get the memo, the one that said their success was supposed toend when Yao Ming could no longer be a part of it. Maybe they forgot that youcan't compete in the Western Conference without a dominant center and thattheir 7'6" model was lost for the season on Feb. 26 with a stress fracturein his left foot. Maybe they weren't told that their 12-game winning streak wassupposed to disappear with Yao; instead they capped off a perfect February and,with a 103--89 home victory over the Denver Nuggets on Sunday, matched afranchise record with 15 straight wins, vaulting them into fifth place in theWest.

Or maybe they didhear all those things and they simply didn't care. "It was like a funeralthe first game we played without [Yao]," says point guard Rafer Alston."But we are a good team, and we still have a lot of games to proveit."

The Rockets' runhas been fueled by the player with the most to prove: Tracy McGrady, 28, theübertalented small forward with seven AllStar selections, two first-teamAll-NBA honors ... and zero playoff series wins to his credit. The same McGradywho in 2003 as a member of the Orlando Magic openly talked about the secondround while his team led the Detroit Pistons three games to one, only to seethe Magic blow the series. The same McGrady who last season told the world toput Houston's playoff chances "on him," then couldn't prevent a loss tothe Utah Jazz. (He shed tears of frustration during his press conference afterGame 7.)

With Yao out of thelineup, McGrady, who was averaging a robust 21.3 points, 4.9 rebounds and 5.6assists through Sunday, remains the Rockets' primary booster, but now he has avariety of propulsive help. Rookie Luis Scola, who plays like an Argentine TimDuncan and whom the Rockets stole from the San Antonio Spurs last summer for asecond-round pick, has stabilized a power forward position that had been aweakness in Houston since (no kidding) Otis Thorpe was traded away in 1995.Alston, who could have been had for less than Scola in the off-season, hadaveraged 14.2 points and 7.5 assists through Sunday during the winning streak.Forward Shane Battier (10.2 points per game during the streak), rookie forwardCarl Landry (9.2) and Yao's replacement, 41-year-old Dikembe Mutombo, have alsoprovided a lift.

"I haven't hadthis kind of trust in my teammates before," says McGrady. Sitting in frontof his locker following Sunday's win, his voice begins to lower. "I'm apretty damn good player, but I can't do it by myself."

That's not to saythere won't be turbulence. The loss of their big man has rendered some elementsof the Rockets' game plan obsolete. Turn 5, a basic play in which the ball isdumped into Yao on the block and the team plays through him, has beeneffectively banished from the playbook, and Houston has gone from running twodozen post-ups per game to three or four. Moreover, a cushy February schedulegives way to a brutal March, when the Rockets go head-to-head with all of theWestern powers.

Yet while Yao'sinjury would have been crippling last season, when Jeff Van Gundy rode Yao andMcGrady and basically ignored everyone else, new coach Rick Adelman'sspread-the-wealth offense has put Houston in position to continue its success.The Rockets had averaged 25.3 assists on 38.1 field goals during the streak atweek's end and on Sunday placed five players in double figures. "I don'tunderstand people who say that without Yao, we can't score," says McGrady."We have a roster full of guys who can score."

As he came out latein the fourth quarter on Sunday, McGrady pumped both fists and let out a primalscream, happy that his team had won, and even happier that he didn't have to doit all by himself.



Find out where Luis Scola and Carl Landry fall in DrewPackham's Rookie Rankings.



Photograph by Bill Baptist/NBAE/Getty Images

T FOR TWO McGrady (1) is still Houston's driving force, but a new, pass-happy attack has made the absence of Yao (top) bearable.


Photograph by Bill Baptist/NBAE/Getty Images

[See caption above]