Even after losing to the Jazz 99-86 on Tuesday, the Rockets are 16-5 since Tracy McGrady shut it down for the season.
I knew once McGrady said he was out for the year that this team would play better. It is not an indictment of McGrady, but when you have arguably your best player in and out of the lineup, it is difficult to get any type of consistency.
He might participate in a shootaround so everyone thinks he's playing, but then you show up for the game and it turns out he is not. That makes it difficult to get any type of normalcy. Having that type of player in and out of the lineup made it difficult on the team.
Now that Houston knows he won't be there, they are able to develop an identity. It makes it easier on everyone. During shootaround, you go over the situations and plays that you think will work during the game. How can you do most of this stuff that goes through McGrady if he does shootaround but then doesn't play in the game?
The Rockets have to run their offense through Yao Ming and Ron Artest a lot more. Now that McGrady is gone, it is clear that Yao is option No. 1 and Artest is option Nos. 2, 3 and 4. Artest has played well at times. Taunting Kobe Bryant a couple of weeks ago was a bad idea, but everyone knows Artest is a very capable player. With McGrady gone, there are a lot more opportunities for Ron to be the guy.
Aaron Brooks has had his ups and downs at point guard for Houston. He is a different player than Rafer Alston was. He is a score-first point guard who is not afraid to take big shots. He is a very confident player. Point guard is the toughest position in the game, and Brooks has the basketball knowledge for it. Do I think he is a starting point guard for the next 10 years in the league? I don't think so. But he is fearless and is going to be a player for a long time.
It is unfortunate for Houston that Carl Landry is out. He has been a tremendous second-round pick. Chuck Hayes has been playing well and Luis Scola is one of the most underrated players in the league.
The great thing about coach Rick Adelman is that he uses his personnel superbly. He doesn't impose his philosophy or jam an offense down someone's throat. He tinkers but lets guys be themselves. He is great at defining roles.
Having said all that about Houston, if the Rockets played Utah for the third straight year in the playoffs, I don't know if I'd pick them to win the series this time around, either. That is a tough call. I need to see how the season plays out, because I'm not convinced about the Rockets yet. They are still a work in progress.
They are neck-and-neck with the Spurs, challenging for the two seed in the West, but in a series against Utah, Deron Williams would be a major problem. Chris Paul is the best point guard in the NBA and he has fits with Williams, who had 19 points and 12 assists on Tuesday night.
The Jazz are a great team at home and struggle mightily against good teams on the road, but I could see them sneaking one win in Houston and then taking care of business in Utah.
Utah has Williams and a strong bench, and Carlos Boozer is getting healthy. I love the talent level of the Jazz. If Houston had a healthy McGrady from two years ago, I'd take the Rockets. We didn't get to see Artest, Yao and McGrady play together this season for an extended amount of time. Health always seems to be a problem with the Rockets.
ESPN analyst Jon Barry is a regular contributor to the Daily Dime
The Spurs played their 17th one possession game of the season last night, narrowly defeating the Warriors 107-106.
The Spurs are now 11-6 in games that come down to a final shot, a record that suggests a level of poise and execution we've come to expect from them. But in recent games that moxie has been missing. Even in Tuesday's victory, the Spurs committed a turnover and missed two free throws in the final 30 seconds.
Tony Parker continued his ascent into superstardom, scoring 30 points and dishing 10 assists. But when Parker was not on the floor the Spurs failed to run their offense efficiently. Roger Mason Jr., who coach Gregg Popovich uses at the point while Parker rests, does not possess the ability to collapse the defense the way Tim Duncan and Parker can. Without a player on the court who can score in the paint, the Spurs' bench is unable to create the open perimeter shots that have increasingly become the backbone of their offense.
What the Spurs' second unit needs is a reliable penetrator who is also an adept passer. They need a player who is comfortable with the ball in his hands even when pressure is applied at the halfcourt line. In other words, they need Manu Ginobili in silver and black instead of a suit and tie.
Graydon Gordian is the founder and coauthor of 48 Minutes of Hell.
Philadelphia's win in Portland on Monday night keeps alive the possibility of Philly passing Miami for the fifth seed in the East. Currently Philly trails by one in the loss column, and whether the Sixers can catch the Heat may have as much to do with the Cavs and Celtics as anything else.
Philly's last two games are against the Cavs and Celtics, which on paper looms as a daunting task. In reality, however, both teams have a chance to be locked into their playoff positions by then, which means they'd likely play their reserves in what would be a meaningless game for them.
Further muddling the race is that the tiebreakers remain unsettled. Philly and Miami split the season series, and the conference record tiebreaker is too close to call at the moment. As a result, the Hawks may not know their first-round playoff opponent until the last day of the season.
For the other four Insider gems, click here.
The Spurs have now won 22 consecutive home games against the Warriors after their victory Tuesday night, a streak that started in November 1997. That's the longest current home winning streak by one NBA team against another and the longest such streak for any NBA team since the Lakers won 26 straight home games against the Mavericks from 1991 to 2003.
The last Golden State win in San Antonio was on Valentine's Day in 1997. Latrell Sprewell (32 points), Joe Smith (20) and Chris Mullin (18) led the Warriors to a 108-94 win at the Alamodome. The Spurs leading scorer that day was Dominique Wilkins, who scored 22 points off the bench.
Tony Parker, Spurs: Drops 30 points and 10 dimes on the Warriors. And free throws weren't a problem; he made 4-of-5 to help the Spurs back into the West's No. 2 spot.
Corey Maggette, Warriors: Misses 6 of 7 field goal attempts in a one-point loss to the Spurs. Now a combined 2-of-18 from the field over his last two games.
QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
"He was unbelievable out there today just making the plays he normally makes. He hasn't missed a beat. Gilbert looked good out there. He looked real sharp. I can't wait to see him out there live and see the response and the fans."
-- Wizards swingman Caron Butler on the practice session of teammate Gilbert Arenas, who will make his season debut Saturday
AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki
Kobe Bryant soared for this rebound during the Lakers' 107-89 win in Oklahoma City. Bryant scored 19 points before taking the fourth quarter off.