|Even after long winning streak, Rockets may not be title contender|
|Written by Admin|
|Friday, 14 March 2008 11:41|
The only other team to win that many games in a row is the Houston Rockets - and nobody seems sure what to make of their postseason chances.
``Houston has sort of been off the radar screen. They've won 20 in a row and they still don't have the best record in the West, which tells you how far they've had to come and also tells you how difficult the Western Conference is,'' NBA TV analyst Gail Goodrich said. ``So they've won 20 in a row, but still you talk about Houston and you say, 'Are they one of the elite teams in the Western Conference?' And that raises a question.''
Goodrich averaged a team-high 25.9 points on the Lakers team that owns the longest winning streak in NBA history. It began the game after Hall of Famer Elgin Baylor retired because of a knee injury, but the team still had Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain and was an obvious championship-caliber team.
Though the Rockets kept rolling even after the season-ending loss of All-Star center Yao Ming, their remaining roster beyond Tracy McGrady doesn't look nearly as impressive as some of the other West powers.
``I don't think this is a championship team,'' Goodrich said. ``Now with Yao you might then start to think about it, but with him out for the season I don't think this is a championship team.''
It may not even be a second-round one. Even after winning 20 in a row headed into Friday's game against Charlotte, the Rockets had no guarantee of earning home-court advantage in the first round, let alone throughout the West playoffs.
In fact, Houston might not even be favored to win any of its next five games. Sunday's showdown with the Lakers begins a brutal stretch that includes a home game against Boston followed by a three-game trip to New Orleans, Golden State and Phoenix. If they dropped all five, the Rockets could tumble from near the top of the West to the bottom of the playoff standings.
But no matter how long it lasts, the winning streak was a remarkable feat for a team that lost Yao's 22 points and 10.8 rebounds per game along the way.
``I think it's incredible, given the fact that you know they've made so many changes during the year and added people and made trades, and then with the injuries,'' San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said. ``Tracy missed a spell for a while and then obviously Yao out. The way they're playing at both ends, both defensively and offensively, I think they deserve a lot of credit for what they've accomplished.''
ON THE RIGHT TRAIL: Their 13-game winning streak is a distant memory and they are now barely above .500. Still, this should be remembered as a good season for the Portland Trail Blazers.
Portland won only 32 games last season and expectations weren't high coming into this one. The Trail Blazers traded away their most productive player, Zach Randolph, and lost No. 1 overall pick Greg Oden to knee surgery before training camp began.
``I don't make predictions at the beginning of the season, whether we have Greg in uniform, but we didn't,'' coach Nate McMillan said. ``And I think a lot of people just assumed that we weren't going to win many games and if I was betting man I probably would have bet that way. But anything can happen.
``If guys step up and they develop and play well and you're healthy, you have a shot at winning games if you play with a certain energy and effort and togetherness, and our guys did that.''
Ultimately, it probably won't pay off with a playoff berth. Even after winning 13 in a row in December, the Blazers were only 34-32 going into the weekend, well back of eighth place in the Western Conference. But they're on pace to win 10 more games than last season, an impressive turnaround for any team.
``I can't say that's a bad season,'' All-Star guard Brandon Roy said. ``That's just saying how tough the West is and it says how far we have to go if we want to be one of those top teams, and we feel like we can eventually.''
Many people think they will. Whenever Oden joins second-year players Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge, the Blazers will have perhaps the best young core in the NBA and be in prime position to become a West power down the line.
``We like our direction,'' McMillan said. ``We like what we've done as far as draft picks and our future and our position as far as being able to build with the youth that we have. We'll have cap space in another year or two to add to this team. We're showing improvement, so we really haven't compared ourselves to other teams. We had a direction three years ago and we're trying to follow that.''
UNSTEADY EDDY: Eddy Curry spent most of the week hoping he could continue playing on his injured knee instead of having season-ending surgery.
With the way things went for the Knicks center, it wouldn't have been surprising if he had decided right away to call it a year.
The 6-foot-11 Curry took a giant step back this season, one of the many problems the Knicks have faced. Isiah Thomas made a bold move to acquire Curry from Chicago in 2005, and it won't go down as a good one unless the 25-year-old regains his form.
``I remember when the trade was made for Curry, everybody liked the trade,'' Toronto coach Sam Mitchell said. ``A young big guy that can score on the inside, that commands a double team.''
That's forgotten now, though Curry was enjoying one of his best stretches of the season, averaging 20.7 points in three games before leaving the lineup.
``The thing I think we've found out is that he is a good player,'' Thomas said of that stretch. ``Even though he's had a tough year, he's a very good basketball player.''
Which makes his struggles this season even more confusing.
Curry had his best season in 2006-07, averaging 19.5 points and 7.0 rebounds while shooting 57.6 percent from the field as the team's No. 1 option on offense. But Thomas traded for Zach Randolph on draft night, a move that seems to have set Curry back.
His numbers dropped to 13.2 points and 4.7 boards during a miserable season which will finish with the Knicks having one of the worst records in the NBA.
``The same thing happened to me my last year in Chicago. When you're unhappy, it makes it tough,'' said Hornets center Tyson Chandler, Curry's former teammate with the Bulls. ``It makes it tough to do, I don't care what you're doing, it makes it tough to do your job. A guy like him, he needs some positive energy around him.''
CAVS' QUESTIONS: The Cleveland Cavaliers' deal at the trade deadline made them deeper than they've ever been since LeBron James arrived. And they've needed that depth, because they can't stay healthy.
Cleveland welcomed starting shooting guard Sasha Pavlovic back this week, but Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Daniel Gibson remained sidelined by injuries.
``We've had three or four at times out of our top seven guys out for long periods of time and we've still been able to win,'' James said. ``We've had some bad injuries, not to the point where it can hurt us in the long term, but short term, I think we can become really, really good when we get everyone back.''
Cleveland expected to improve when it brought in Ben Wallace, Wally Szczerbiak, Delonte West and Joe Smith in an 11-player deal last month. But the injuries have kept the Cavs from seeing everyone on the court together and letting them become familiar with each other.
With only a month left in the regular season, coach Mike Brown doesn't even know what his top lineup would look like if the postseason were starting today.
``It would be just a guess on feel and so on and so forth,'' he said. ``I think I have a pretty good feel. It's a lot easier to say it, verbalize what your lineup's going to be as opposed to going out there and actually having to go through a rotation, knowing what you're going to get from this lineup to that lineup in this course of the ballgame.''
That wouldn't be such a concern earlier in the season, but the Cavs don't have much time. They start their Eastern Conference title defense in a little more than 30 days, and are trying to avoid having to do it on the road. They went into the weekend two games ahead of Toronto for fourth in the East and home-court advantage in the first round.
``We don't know how good we can be,'' James said. ``We'll see what happens, we'll see how we all jell. It has to be now because we only have a certain amount of games in the regular season.''