HOUSTON (AP) -At halftime of the Houston Rockets' game in Dallas last Thursday, Rafer Alston promised his team that he would shut down Jason Terry. The Mavericks' point guard didn't score again and the Rockets won 113-98.
Last Saturday, Alston scored 20 points, then faced off at midcourt with New Orleans big man Tyson Chandler after Houston beat the Hornets 106-96.
Houston has won 19 consecutive games and not coincidentally, Alston is playing the best basketball of his career and growing more confident with each victory. The 6-foot-2 point guard has averaged 15 points and seven assists and gone 45-for-115 from 3-point range (39 percent) during the victory streak, the third-longest in NBA history.
Alston and the Rockets will go for their 20th straight win in Atlanta on Wednesday.
``I hope he doesn't turn it off,'' Tracy McGrady said. ``I love the way he's playing. He's a real fierce competitor right now. He's knocking down the outside shot, he's penetrating. He's doing it all.''
Alston has come a long way since the preseason, when he wasn't even sure the Rockets wanted to keep him.
Houston drafted Aaron Brooks, then brought in Steve Francis and Mike James, creating a crowded competition. Alston accepted the challenge, quietly believing that he was the best match for coach Rick Adelman's offensive system.
``Even from the start, I knew it would be a good fit for me,'' Alston said. ``I can be a playmaker at times, I can be a scorer at times. It made me more involved. I'm a weapon in it.''
Early in the season, Alston split minutes with James and Francis as Adelman searched for the right man to run the offense.
Francis eventually suffered a season-ending quadriceps injury, James was traded and Brooks was relegated to a reserve role, leaving the responsibility to Alston.
``Now, he's playing at a very high level, and that's what we need,'' Adelman said. ``We need him to have a level like this.''
He's raised his game even higher in the seven games since Yao Ming went out with a season-ending foot injury, averaging 17 points and five assists.
Over the weekend, former Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy, now a television analyst, said Alston is playing as well as any point guard in the league.
Alston just happened to be watching.
``I was so shocked,'' Alston said. ``I'm like, 'I can't believe that he mentioned my name in the same breath as Steve Nash.'''
McGrady doesn't think it's that much of a stretch right now.
``He's played like an All-Star,'' McGrady said. ``He's played like one of the better point guards in this league. I put him up there with the best of them. His production and his leadership have just been phenomenal.''
Alston has 129 assists with only 39 turnovers during the Rockets' winning streak. He's improved the arc on his 3-point shots and has hit at least three in nine of the 19 games. He's also worked on perfecting a one-handed ``teardrop'' shot and seems to toss in a few of those each night.
``This game has a lot to do with the rhythm you're in,'' he said, ``and right now, I feel like I'm in a great rhythm.''
The way he's playing reminds him of his best days growing up on the concrete courts in New York City. Lately, he's unleashed some of the trash talk that was part of the culture back then, but the other Rockets have told him to keep quiet for the sake of the team.
``That's one thing I've always listened to them about,'' he said. ``Even though I'm competing, I'm doing the things I did in New York. But they say, 'Tone it down. Let's go win the game.'''
If that's all it takes to keep the Rockets rolling, Alston is willing to do it.
With Monday's win over New Jersey, Houston moved within one game of San Antonio and the Los Angeles Lakers for the top seed in the tightly packed Western Conference. But even with their winning streak, the Rockets entered Tuesday only four games ahead of the No. 9 spot and out of playoff contention.
``If you lose a couple of games in a row, you know where that could put you,'' he said. ``If you continue to keep winning, you remain at the top of the division and the conference. And we don't have Yao. So my level of play not only has to go up, I have to sustain it for a long period of time.''

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