The 2000s were a memorable experience for the Houston Rockets and their fans. We went nearly full-circle, from rock bottom to NBA championship contenders. Often, the Rockets had high expectations, and fell below them. Other times, they had low expectations, but managed to surpass them. You never knew what you were going to get, and it made the Rockets all the more exciting to watch.
We went through three coaches, from Rudy Tomjanovich to Jeff Van Gundy to Rick Adelman. We transformed ourselves from a young, free-wheeling team into a defensive juggernaut. And then we tore all of that up, gained youth, depth, and balance, and once again became relevant on offense. As relatively stable as the Rockets' regular-season records were over the last decade, there were many immense changes. Our identity ran all over the place.
Yes, when we made that trade for Tracy McGrady back in 2004, we figured we would have won a championship by now. That was the thinking behind it at the time: we were going to win a title with the best inside-outside duo in the Western Conference. And though we were successful, as successful as a team can consistently be during the regular season, we never got it done. But we certainly had fun trying.
After the jump, we'll take a look at the best that the 2000s had to offer.
Best Victory: Rockets 99, Lakers 87 in Game 4 -- May 10, 2009
Ah, yes. The Mother's Day Miracle. I don't think I'll ever forget this one.
With Yao Ming out for the remainder of the playoffs with a leg injury, the Rockets appeared helpless. That is, until Aaron Brooks and Shane Battier decided to drop a combined 57 points on the LakeShow. Really, it was quite convenient.
It was Brooks' coming-of-age game, a performance that propelled him onto the national stage (aided by Phil Jackson). If Aaron shoots poorly and the Rockets lose, there's no way he comes on as strong as he has so far this year. That's how important a game it was for Brooks. He was called upon to play his best, and he did just that.
Perhaps the biggest miracle of all was that the Rockets scored 99 points without any help from Ron Artest. Crazy Pills shot 4-19 that day, which you can most likely blame on Hennessy (I was planning on using this as another example of how Houston won the Ariza/Artest swap, but given the fact that Ariza has been shooting like Sandy Lyle lately, I'd be eating my words. Perhaps some other time).
Of all the various thoughts that I posted following the victory, I think this one sums it up best:
Brian Cook hit a three in the second quarter. Checkmate.
Highlights from the victory:
Honorable Mention: March 22nd, 2009 victory @ San Antonio. Yao's two passes to Luis Scola to seal it were unreal.
Most Outrageous Game: Lakers 102, Rockets 94 -- December 12, 2006
(I know we lost, but keep reading. If you saw this game, you'll agree with me here).
So, if you're down by twenty-six points with 10:22 left in the fourth quarter, what's the proper course of action? Uh - bench your All-World center, of course.
Figuring the game was out of reach, Jeff Van Gundy pulled Yao, Shane Battier, and Rafer Alston. In came John Lucas III, Scott Padgett, Steve Novak, Chuck Hayes, and Luther Head (what more could you ask for, really?) Phil Jackson sat down Kobe Bryant, who began icing his knees. Yeah, this one looked like it was done.
Thing is, it was far from over.
Amazingly, the Rockets' reserves went on a 24-1 run to close the gap to 94-92, featuring some nifty three point shooting from Head, a rare free throw make by Chuck Hayes, and the most beautiful running lay-up that the world has ever seen, courtesy of Mr. Novak.
Then, as suddenly as it started, it stopped. It wasn't because Kobe Bryant came back in the game - he had already been back for three minutes. No, no, there was a much more imminent cause. It has to do with Scott Padgett, two missed free throws, and my drink flung all over the wall.
Padgett failed to tie the game with 1:16 left, and the Lakers pulled away. It was the most incredible finish that wasn't. Even Bryant thought so.
"That was the weirdest game I've ever been a part of," Bryant said. "That's the first time I've put the ice on and had to come back out and play. It's almost like Red Auerbach smoking the cigar."
Here is the play-by-play of the almost-comeback, from the 10:22 mark in the fourth and on (click to enlarge):
Best Performance: Tracy McGrady scores 13 points in 35 seconds to stun Spurs
Every once in a while, you'll come across an unbelievable statistic from the old days of basketball, and think to yourself, "This would never happen today. It's too ridiculous to even comprehend. It makes no sense." For example, Wilt Chamberlain scoring 50 points per game in 1962. Or Oscar Robertson averaging a triple double in that same season. Or Bill Russell averaging nearly 25 rebounds per game in 1964.
How about scoring 13 points in only 35 seconds? This is one of those stat-lines that just makes no sense.
Anyone who scores thirteen points in a single half should be happy. And to score thirteen points in a single quarter - that's impressive as well. But to do it in less than a minute? Blasphemy.
Then again, video don't lie.
Devin Brown still doesn't know what happened.
Best Play: Tracy McGrady posterizes Shawn Bradley, sucks gravity "right out of the building."
This one speaks for itself, thanks to Kevin Harlan.
(Side note: If there is anyone who I would hire to narrate my life, it would absolutely be Harlan. I can only imagine what something as trivial as eating breakfast would suddenly become. "And Martin takes the milk, carefully pours it into his bowl of Frosted Flakes. He now grabs the spoon -- he's going to try to mix it together -- and OOOOHHHHHHHH! THE MILK COMES FLYING OFF THE SPOON AND SMACKS HIM IN THE FACE! WHAT A DISASTER OF A PLAY! RIGHT... BETWEEN THE EYES!"
Harlan is the human vocal chord's answer to the theme from Requiem for a Dream.)
Defining Moment of the 2000s: Rockets win 22 straight games
I wish I could compare this to something, but I really can't. I've never seen nor been a part of anything like it.
The funny thing is that, as the streak continued on, it became less magical and more like a part of daily life. I'd go to school, do my homework, watch the Rockets win, and repeat this process again the next morning. If I missed a game, there was no point in calling up a friend to find out the score. It would be like asking someone if they got dressed that morning - I didn't have to ask, because I already knew.
People will remember that the Rockets won 22 games in a row, no doubt. But they won't remember the incredible circumstances surrounding it, which is unfortunate. Yao Ming was around for twelve games - that's it. The remaining ten games included wins against the LA Lakers, Denver, and New Orleans at home, topped off by a sweet victory in Dallas. This was also pre-Artest; McGrady was by himself as the only proven scorer on the team. Everyone else chipped in at some point, which was the true magic of it. If a guy like Shane Battier had a good game one night, but played poorly the next, Carl Landry would step up. And if not Landry, then Rafer Alston, who scored 31 against Los Angeles (the true miracle of the streak).
Then came Boston, and Boston was good - they went on to win the NBA Championship that year. I was actually in Boston during the game, on a college visit to Boston University, and watched from my hotel room. It was painful to watch and tough to accept (I still despise freakin' Leon Powe). But it was also time for it all to end. Sooner or later, it was going to come to a close. If anything, I'm thankful that it was the Celtics who beat us, instead of someone like Charlotte or Indiana. That would have been a cruel ending.
Rafer summed up the experience quite nicely:
"Our names will be mentioned there with Hall of Fame people," said Houston point guard Rafer Alston. "We have something to tell our kids."
Honorable Mention: Injuries. Truly, it was a decade of high expectations thrown to the curb by poor health.
Top Ten Rockets of the Decade:
Note: This list includes players who A) Began their career with the Rockets post-2000, or B) Were in their prime during the 2000s. Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, and Clyde Drexler thus do not make the list.
1. Yao Ming
This one's a no-brainer. Yao has not only impacted the Rockets, but has influenced an entire continent, and has subsequently spread the gospel of the NBA and of the Rockets to the entire world. He's much more valuable on the court than his statistics might suggest, and they aren't half-bad either.
2. Shane Battier
It's difficult to place someone above Tracy McGrady on this list. But to be fair, though T-Mac and Yao have been a part of some good seasons, Battier has been there for all of them. He's a team leader, has played some of his best basketball in some of the most important games of the decade (see: Lakers Game 4, Blazers Game 6 of 2009 playoffs). He has been a model citizen and player, and while some folks out there desire more from Shane statistically, there has never been a critic of his character and of his role as a teammate (Yao called him "the perfect teammate" in Chris Ballard's The Art of a Beautiful Game). I'd be a fool not to be ecstatic to have Shane Battier on my team.
3. Tracy McGrady
Statistically, Tracy is the most accomplished Rocket of the decade. He's a fan-favorite, a perennial scoring threat, and has put together some of the most incredible performances that we have ever seen in a red uniform. His talent is unquestioned, as is his desire to win. Problem is, whenever you discuss T-Mac, you discuss health. It's a sad story, Tracy's injury history (as well as his playoff history), but not sad enough to supplant his good moments. Tracy will forever be remembered as a Rocket, the man who carried a team on his shoulders and led them to 22 straight wins.
4. Steve Francis - A talented point guard and the face of the franchise for a few of its worst seasons. However, I'll always keep Stevie Franchise in my heart as a Rocket. His best years were in Houston, and albeit difficult, they were fun.
Added description from OAL, which I couldn't ignore:
Steve Francis was, if nothing else, a breathtaking player when he was healthy. Sure, he had some awful deficiencies in his game – couldn’t really shoot even though he thought he could, dribbled too much, didn’t defend well, often made dumb plays – but it was just incredible watching him fly through the lane for a dunk. Hard-nosed, tough (despite, oddly enough, being most known for crying during the draft), all those cliches. Good rebounder, too, which is such an underrated quality in a guard. I was practically heartbroken (yeah, I know) when they traded him (and during all the crap between him and JVG), even though I knew it was the right move.
I look at his career and all he was capable of doing, and I wonder what would have happened if he only had a little more discipline and a lot more luck.
But the mustache was stupid.
5. Cuttino Mobely - One of the better scoring guards of his day, Mobely was dealt to Orlando in the McGrady trade. He was energetic, a great free throw shooter, and was often times our answer when we needed points.
6. Luis Scola - Now it gets interesting. Scola has only been here for 2+ seasons now, but he has made a great impact in all three, and has continued to improve at the NBA level. He's probably the most likeable and consistent Rocket that we currently have, making him the most hated Rocket elsewhere.
7. Carl Landry - His energy and his fervor for the game are irreplaceable. Unlike guys such as Mo Taylor, Jim Jackson, or Walt Williams, who scored more points with the Rockets than Landry has, Carl has been here for the good times, and essentially came out of nowhere, making his ascension towards league-wide recognition all the more special.
8. Chuck Hayes - Not much needs to be said here. Chuck has been a stronghold for a long time, and has finally won the fans over, I think.
9. Dikembe Mutombo - Deke always stepped up big in Yao's absence. He was the best cheerleader that you could ask for, and his teammates loved him. Nowadays, when you think of Mutombo, you think of his tenure with the Rockets, which is really saying something.
10. Moochie Norris - You're going to argue, and I'm going to disagree. That's that. Moochie was a tenured, solid back-up point guard, one of the best in the league during his time. I'll take a dedicated Rocket like Moochie over a guy like Jackson who may have succeeded here, but played on about ten different teams.
Honorable Mention: Aaron Brooks. He's only shown up for a year and a half now. If he stays with Houston, he'll be on this list soon enough.
What happens next?
Well, I sure as hell don't know. Perhaps we'll win a championship. It would be nice.