The conventional wisdom has been that the San Antonio Spurs are the only team that has a shot of knocking off the Lakers in the Western Conference playoffs.
But now the Spurs are not leading the Southwest Division, and they are not second in the Western Conference. The Houston Rockets are. Thanks to a Luis Scola layup with 11.9 seconds left, the Rockets beat the Spurs 87-85 on the Spurs home court, and that vaulted the Rockets up in the standings.
Since Tracy McGrady’s left knee went under the knife, the Rockets are 15-4. Yao Ming continues to be one of the two best centers walking the face of the earth. Ron Artest fits in brilliantly when he decides to fit in and not take over the offense. Shane Battier continues to be the smart defender and glue guy for the Rockets.
But it is also the little things that make these Rockets different than their predecessors. The trade of Rafer Alston to Orlando was one of those moves that make the Rockets front office look smart, because they got the best player in the deal back. Alston is the big name and a quality veteran that has provided a nice stability for Orlando, but Kyle Lowry is the better player, more efficient and younger. In the last 10 games he is averaging 8 points and 4 assists off the bench — numbers that don’t begin to highlight how he has improved the second unit with his aggressive play going to the rim.
Other guys like Von Wafer are even fitting together in ways other teams never saw when they cast these guys aside. Wafer could fill it up from the day he was drafted by the Lakers, but he was a square peg in the confines of the triangle offense. Now he is getting about 10 points a game in the last 10, just playing 18 minutes a night.
Still, it seems nobody really believes in the Rockets. They won 22 in a row just about this point last year, then they got bounced by the Jazz in six games in the first round of the playoffs. Why should this year be any different? Especially since if the playoffs started today, they would get an improving Utah again.
But this is different because this is a more mature Rockets team. First, they are playing better defense, as evidenced by holding the Spurs to just 41.5% shooting for the game Sunday. You can afford to have Battier and Artest be aggressive out on the wings when you have a 7-6 wall in the paint as backup.
More importantly, this team is starting to make smart plays when it maters. Today, with the game on the line, they got the ball to Yao in the final two possessions, and he then shocked the world with two pretty passes. When Artest keeps his ego in check and doesn’t demand the ball every time down (or start barking at Kobe) the Rockets are a very good team.
Rockets or Spurs? It may be moot, a couple weeks ago the Lakers beat them both on back-to-back nights on the road.
But the conventional wisdom that the Spurs are the second best team in the West may well be as good as that wisdom six months ago that Bear Stearns failing was the bottom of what was going to happen to the economy.
Kurt Helin's favorite city in Texas remains Austin, but it doesn't have an NBA Team. He also writes Forum Blue & Gold.