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Rockets get ready to run with the big dogs

Rockets get ready to run with the big dogs

Rockets get ready to run with the big dogs

The players hope picking up pace will push them to success

Don Nelson knew it was just a preseason game, but after watching the Rockets run up and down the court during their 104-90 victory Thursday, the Dallas Mavericks' president of basketball operations/general manager knew the gap between the two teams was closing fast.

No longer was this a defense-first team with an offensive style more sleep-inducing than title-contending; no, this group of Rockets — much like Nelson's Mavericks — was playing up-tempo. This group of Rockets looked poised to do more than just make the playoffs. This looked like the team that compelled ESPN basketball stats guru John Hollinger to pick the Rockets as his choice to win the NBA Finals.

"The future's bright in Houston," Nelson said. "They're deep. ... With the kinds of weapons they have out there, they can play an East Coast beat-'em-up style or get out in the open court. (Coach) Rick Adelman is one of the best in the league at opening up an offense; plus, they still have strong defensive principles. It's the best of both worlds for them."

Change was necessary after four stagnant years of Jeff Van Gundy's style of play, but the Rockets embarked on an extreme makeover that would stagger Ty Pennington. Eight new players (rookies Aaron Brooks, Mike Harris, Carl Landry and Luis Scola, along with veterans Jackie Butler, Steve Francis, Mike James and Justin Reed), a new general manager (Daryl Morey) and a new coach (Adelman) later, the expectations have changed.

Living in the suburbs of the Western Conference won't cut it; the Rockets are hoping to move into the high-rent district where Dallas, Phoenix and San Antonio have resided.

The tenants up Interstate 45 already have noticed the changes.

"They're probably happier now that they have freer rein to play up-tempo," said Mavericks guard-forward Jerry Stackhouse. "Van Gundy was more old-school in wanting to play a grind-out game. But with Rick, they're going to score more, so we think they're more dangerous than in past years."

The redesigning of the Rockets centered upon building a club that can play an up-tempo style of offense while instilling the anaconda-like defense that Van Gundy trademarked. That meansgenerating more than last season's 97 points per game average, which placed them a pedestrian 17th in the league.

"It's definitely going to be good to go up and down the court," said James.

Players like new tempo

Guard Rafer Alston agreed.

"It fits me well," Alston said. "I can get out and push the ball. ... I'm a guy who likes to pass the ball, so that forces guys to run with me. They know they're going to get the basketball."

The additions to the roster will take the pressure off of Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming to carry the team on their shoulders. Too often in recent years, the Rockets' offense consisted of three players waiting around for the two All-Stars on the floor to create scoring.

Mavericks coach Avery Johnson knows that won't be the case this season.

"They're going to be a dangerous team," he said. "Collectively, each of the changes they made will help put them over the top."

The arrival of Scola has garnered the most attention. The 6-9 power forward's aggressiveness inside the paint and ability to score down low provides the franchise with its most complete player at the position since Charles Barkley.

"He can play," Bonzi Wells said of Scola. "He's definitely going to help us, but we need everybody to make him better."

The Mavericks and Spurs also will have to contend with a roster that is deeper than it has been in years. With Adelman's ability to utilize the likes of Francis, Wells, James and Chuck Hayes off the bench, the Rockets now believe they have enough depth to withstand the grind of an 82-game season and the injuries that come along with the marathon pace.

"We have a lot of depth, and that's what they have," said Alston. "They have guys who can come off the bench who can shoot and score, and we now have guys who can do that. Now we have to see how that plays out on the court."

Stacking up well

While Thursday's win doesn't count in the standings, it did show the Rockets might be on the cusp of being more than just the "other NBA team in Texas."

"I think we stack up well against (Dallas)," Hayes said. "On paper, we look like we should be one of the top teams in the Western Conference, but we haven't proven anything yet. ... We made a lot of nice moves in the offseason to compete with the other teams in Texas."

Alston believes the game was important, even though it doesn't count.

"It may be preseason, but it's important to get a gauge on them," Alston said. "They're one of the best teams in the conference, so you want to get a chance to see how you match up against them."

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