Friday, March 13, 2009

Faves are fine, but darkhorses like Rockets, Heat are fun

Everybody can tell the favorites from the moment they step onto the track. Heads held high, a gait infused with confidence, a gleam in their eyes that tells you they know how to get to the finish line.


They come from regal stables such as Boston and Los Angeles and San Antonio, or with their royal bloodlines --- King James of Cleveland ---clearly evident. The favorites are where the smart money goes.

But it's the darkhorses that create the splash and put the unexpected fun into every race.

So here are the Houston Rockets and Miami Heat, still running with the Western and Eastern Conference packs that maybe should have left them in the dust already. But when the playoffs begin next month, they'll be lurking, with the potential to pull a big surprise or two.

A year ago when Yao Ming went down with a broken bone in his left foot, the Rockets' season was supposed to be over. But all his Houston teammates did was rally in Yao's absence, push what was a 12-game game winning streak all the way up to 22 in a row, second-best in NBA history.

Now the Rockets are shocking the NBA world once more. When Tracy McGrady finally got off the in-and-out-of-the-lineup merry-go-round and shut down his season for microfracture knee surgery on Feb. 9, the word on the Rockets was that they were dead again. Instead there's been another resurrection.

Before their loss to the Lakers on Wednesday night, the Rockets had won 11 of 13 games without McGrady, including 12 straight on their home court at the Toyota Center. They're still pushing the Spurs for the No. 2 seed. To the consternation of the experts, Houston does not have a problem.

What the Rockets are missing in scoring punch they have more than made up for with a lineup that, after three-plus months of a revolving door, has become remarkably consistent, thanks largely to the promotion of the speedy Aaron Brooks into the starting role at point guard.

There were a few eyebrows raised when the Rockets beat the deadline buzzer by trading away Rafer Alston, who had been running the offense steadily, if not spectacularly, for his roughly 3 1/2 seasons in town. The three-way deal with Orlando and Memphis brought point guard Kyle Lowry into Houston with an eye on the future. But the present was placed into the hands of the lightning bug Brooks, who has taken it and run. In the process, Brooks has enabled the Rockets to run more on offense and shown to be quite capable of filling up the hoop with perimeter jumpers or getting to the rim. Together, Brooks and Lowry are averaging 18 points and seven assists per game.

Without McGrady, the Rockets' offense has had less indecision, with most possessions running through Yao and with Ron Artest not as wary of stepping on someone's toes.

The idea of combining T-Mac, Yao and Ron-Ron in the same lineup was one of those roll-the-dice gambles intended to put the Rockets on the same footing with "big three" lineups in Boston, L.A. and San Antonio. Maybe it would have worked if McGrady had ever been healthy for s full season.

But what the Rockets and their unflappable coach, Rick Adelman, have proven over the past month is that continuity in a lineup can work wonders for an offense.

While there were also questions about Brooks at the defensive end, he and Lowry have demonstrated they can cut off penetration by using their speed, an asset that could help against the likes of Chris Paul, Tony Parker or even Deron Williams in the playoffs.

Yao is challenging more shots lately and, in Artest and Shane Battier, the Rockets have two lockdown defenders. Will they miss McGrady in the playoffs? For sure, at times. They need an offensive closer. Yet with a bench that includes Carl Landry, Von Wafer, Brent Barry and the venerable Dikembe Mutombo, the Rockets are a deep team that will be a tough out.

In Miami, the Heat will go as far as Dwyane Wade takes them. Considering his electrifying efforts lately, it might be unwise to bet against them.

Never mind that they're starting a rookie --- Mario Chalmers --- in the backcourt with Wade. Or that the Heat spent the first half of the season trying to hammer the square peg of Shawn Marion into a round hole. Or that in the month after they swapped out Marion for Jermaine O'Neal that O'Neal has been as uncomfortable in Miami as a fat man in a thong on South Beach.

What matters most is that Wade's comeback from an injured left knee has been nothing short of stunning. What began last summer on the proving ground of the Olympics in Beijing has turned into Wade now in the MVP conversation.

Who says rookie coach Erik Spoelstra can't keep calling Wade's number all through the spring and keep hitting the jackpot? After all, it worked for Cleveland in 2007 when LeBron James took the Cavs to the NBA Finals.

Would the Heat be overmatched in a playoff series against deeper teams like Boston and Orlando? Well, weren't the "one-man" Cavs supposed to be in over their heads against the Detroit Pistons two years ago? And didn't King James' singular talents and unrelenting will render all of the matchups moot?

What if O'Neal can eventually find a way to become comfortable in the Miami attack, give the Heat an inside presence and provide Wade with a big man to play off? That would only give Wade more room to operate. Then things could get interesting on any floor against any team.

Does Wade have that kind of magic in him, to turn the Heat up to a boil? Can the Rockets keep launching themselves to greater heights?

The smart money might be on the favorites in the playoff post parade. But it's always the darkhorses that make things interesting.

Fran Blinebury covers the NBA for the Houston Chronicle.

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