Catching 22: Rockets greats among those reveling in team's win streak

HOUSTON -- The walkway leading from the showers to Rafer Alston's locker stall was not a clear one Sunday, his path blocked by two huge pieces of Rockets' history and an equally large piece of their present.

"You are older than the two of us combined," Clyde Drexler, standing alongside Hakeem Olajuwon, was saying to Dikembe Mutombo.

The three of them shared a deep belly laugh that resonated throughout the cheerful inner confines of the Houston Rockets, who earned the right -- at least temporarily -- to proclaim themselves the best team in the Western Conference after they defeated the Los Angeles Lakers 104-92 Sunday to run the second-longest winning streak in NBA history to 22 games.

"This is crazy in here," Tracy McGrady said as he worked his way across the crowded room to get to his locker, the smile on his face matching the glowing looks coming from all corners of the arena after the Rockets avoided the bitter taste of defeat for a 47th consecutive day.

Not since Jan. 27 have the Rockets lost a game, and the 12-point victory Sunday represented the 14th time in the past 18 games they had won by double digits. Houston has gone 31-3 in its past 34 games to move from out of the playoff picture in the hypercompetitive West to atop the entire conference.

"I'm sure you'd like to have it 16 games from now, but having it now -- I'd rather be there than in the 10th spot," Houston coach Rick Adelman said. "We know it's just so tenuous that everything's going to change as we go, but today we had a challenge -- we had to beat the Lakers to get that [top] spot, and we did it. Now we have the best team in the East coming in here Tuesday, and that'll be our next challenge."

The hero Sunday was Alston, who scored a career-high 31 points and knocked down eight of the Rockets' 12 3-pointers, the biggest of which came late in the third period after the Lakers had cut a 15-point halftime deficit to 2. Alston's 27-footer with 2.3 seconds left made it a five-point game entering the fourth, and Alston's assist on Shane Battier's 3-pointer with 5:09 left started a game-ending 16-8 run that finished off Los Angeles.

"We're a confident bunch right now, confident but not cocky," said Alston, who could not remember the last time he scored 30, guessing it was probably in a summer league game of some sort. "We understand there's still work to be done."

Alston set the tone for the Rockets right from the get-go, making four 3-pointers and scoring 17 points in the first quarter when he realized the Lakers were overkeying their defense toward stopping McGrady. The Rockets' reserves opened a double-digit lead in the second quarter behind the hustle of Mike Harris, a local product from Rice whose 10-day contract is about to expire, and that of Bobby Jackson, who played his best game since arriving from New Orleans last month in a trade. Jackson scored nine of his 19 points in the second stanza to help Houston go ahead 59-44 at the break.

McGrady was scoreless at halftime and didn't score his first field goal until 2:55 remained in the third quarter, extending a two-point lead to four, and he added eight more points in the fourth quarter when Houston pulled away.

"It's not by accident," Olajuwon said. "They have quality players, they work hard, and you can see the chemistry."

So the streak is at 22 now (including 10 straight since Yao Ming went down with a season-ending injury), with the Eastern Conference-leading Boston Celtics coming in Tuesday night to try to prevent that streak from reaching 23. It remains to be seen whether a bruised heel will keep Ray Allen out of that game, and his absence would provide some more fodder to those who feel the Rockets' winning streak has been cheapened at least somewhat by the quality of their opponents and the circumstances surrounding some of their better victories.

The victory over the Lakers came as Pau Gasol sat out with a sprained ankle, and the victory over Dallas a little more than a week ago came on a night when Dirk Nowitzki was suspended. They didn't have to play against David West when they defeated the Hornets two Saturdays ago, and they might not have to face him Wednesday when they return to New Orleans one night after facing the Celtics.

Moreover, of the 22 consecutive wins, none has come against the three teams that arguably can be called the NBA's elite -- Boston, Detroit and San Antonio.

Against the next rung (the Lakers, Jazz, Hornets and Magic), the Rockets are 3-0 thanks to Sunday's victory plus two earlier wins over the Hornets, and they've gone 3-0 against a pair of semistrong teams -- Dallas (1-0) and Cleveland (2-0) -- currently in a state of flux after major midseason trades. The other 16 wins in the streak have come against a mix of the league's playoff contenders and pretenders (Denver, Golden State, Indiana, Washington, New Jersey, Portland, Chicago and Atlanta) and its bottom-feeders (Bobcats, Bucks, Heat, Kings and Grizzlies).

That level of competition has brought a measure of skepticism about Houston's streak, a mind-set the Rockets find equal parts mind-boggling and offensive.

"Sure, it bothers you some, but I can understand it because that's our world. There's so many experts now, probably 100 times the number there were five years ago, so they've got to justify what they do," Adelman said. "So if it means we've had a soft schedule, fine. But we played the teams that were there.

"I've said it before," Adelman continued, "and in fact I saw Kobe said it: 'If it's so easy, then why hasn't someone else done it?' It could all change in a week, but for what we've done to his point, I think it's a heck of an accomplishment."

Indeed it is, an accomplishment the likes of which we haven't seen in the more than 37 years since the Lakers reeled off an NBA-record 33 in a row.

The Rockets are two-thirds of the way to matching that streak, and to get anywhere near striking distance, they're going to have to have a perfect upcoming week, first against the Celtics, then on the road with a daunting three-games-in-four-nights stretch against the Hornets, Warriors and Suns.

If they emerge unscathed, that'll make it 26, then they'll begin a stretch of eight games in which seven of the opponents (the exception is San Antonio) are nonplayoff teams. So in theory, 34 can be reached by notching just four wins against difficult opponents).

For now, though, the streak is at 22. And no matter whether you choose to consider it impressive, semi-impressive or merely flukish -- it's a streak that brought an old generation and a new generation of Rockets together in the locker room on a Sunday afternoon in mid-March to bask in the glory of their franchise's stunning success.

What'll it mean in mid-April when all anyone will want to talk about is McGrady's history of first-round failures? Probably not a whole lot.

But for now, the streak has brought a vibe to the place once called Clutch City, a place where Olajuwon and Drexler were looking just as proud Sunday as Alston and the rest of the Rockets.

That's what 22 in a row will do.

Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider and has done extensive international basketball reporting. To e-mail Chris, click here.