IF ROCKETS general manager Daryl Morey had been playing this season out on a PlayStation 3 console, the restart button would have gotten a pretty good workout. Forward Shane Battier suffers a foot injury? Click. Never happened. Forward Ron Artest rolls an ankle? Click. Swingman Tracy McGrady aggravates lingering knee and shoulder injuries? Click. Click. Unfortunately life rarely imitates electronics. Battier, Artest and McGrady had missed a combined 59 games at week's end, forcing coach Rick Adelman to use 16 different starting lineups. "It's made this season a bit of a roller coaster," says Morey.
But there have been signs that the ride is leveling off. After McGrady's season ended on Feb. 9 (he underwent microfracture surgery on his left knee two weeks later), Houston had gone 8--1 at week's end, including victories over the Mavericks, Trail Blazers and Cavaliers, and had run its record to 38--22, fourth best in the Western Conference.
What has changed? For starters, with McGrady out, the Rockets retooled their attack. After running a half-court offense through McGrady for a year and a half, Adelman has gone to a more aggressive, running style that features more quick post-ups for 7'6" Yao Ming. The focal point of the offense from 2002--03 to '06--07, Yao had become a secondary option in Adelman's read-and-react attack. Under former coach Jeff Van Gundy the Rockets ran a simple turnout play in which the guard feeds the center in the low post, 15 to 20 times per game; until McGrady got hurt they ran it less than half that many times in most games under Adelman. The generally mild-mannered Yao even began barking along the sideline for more touches. In the last two weeks, though, Adelman has been going to Yao in the post more often, resulting in efforts like Yao's 28 points on 13-for-15 shooting against Cleveland last Thursday. Says Battier, "Yao is our foundation. We know that to win now, we have to go to him early and often."
To pick up the tempo even more, on Feb. 19 Houston traded point guard Rafer Alston, who had started every game he played since joining the Rockets in 2005, to Orlando in a three-way deal that brought Kyle Lowry from the Grizzlies. With Lowry backing up 2007 first-round pick Aaron Brooks, Houston now has two playmakers who prefer a fast pace. "We wanted to clarify our style," says Morey. "Lowry and Brooks push it up the floor and finish in transition."
Defensively, Houston is stronger without the hobbled McGrady. "Tracy wasn't effective on close-outs and didn't have much lateral movement," says an Eastern Conference assistant. "He was a walking target." Now Battier and Artest are on the floor together more often, making the Rockets one of the league's toughest perimeter defensive teams. Against the Cavaliers, that tandem limited LeBron James to 21 points (on 7-for-21 shooting) and held him without an assist for the first time in his career. Over their last nine games through Sunday, Houston was limiting opponents to 88.3 points per game.
Artest has forged a strong relationship with Yao, and there are indications that the Rockets will re-sign him in the off-season, when he will be a free agent. McGrady's absence, however, may be something Houston should get used to. Morey shopped McGrady before the trade deadline, and next year, with a $23 million expiring contract, he will again be prime trade bait—if he is healthy. His recovery will take six to 12 months, and while the Rockets are optimistic it will be on the shorter side, Morey says, "Anyone who tells you they know how these surgeries will turn out doesn't know what they are talking about."
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On Rafer Alston, acquired by the Orlando Magic from Houston in a three-team trade on Feb. 19:
He is a huge addition. At 32 he isn't showing any signs of breaking down like a lot of point guards do when they reach that age. After Jameer Nelson went out [with a season-ending shoulder injury on Feb. 2], the Magic had experimented with Hedo Turkoglu bringing the ball up; now Orlando has freed Turkoglu to go back to focusing on his scoring. Really, Alston makes all of their perimeter players better because he's a pass-first point guard—and that's no knock on Jameer. Rafer's not going to win you games, but he can get the ball to the guys who can. The pick-and-roll is a big play for Orlando, and that's one of his strengths. He has always been a real confident guy, almost cocky, and maybe some of that will rub off and help them in the playoffs.
GREG NELSON (YAO)
THINKING BIG Houston has run more post-up plays for Yao (11) with McGrady out.
BILL FRAKES (ALSTON)