Houston Rockets Roar into NBA Playoff Picture with Home Heart, Road Grit

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Houston Rockets Roar into NBA Playoff Picture with Home Heart, Road Grit
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They each showed it in different ways.

Chuck Hayes growled, grumbled, shoved and whacked Kevin Garnett like a piñata. Candy did not emerge from a tattered Big Ticket. Just a blowout Rockets win.

KG was the one getting punked for a change.

Chase Budinger, who sprained his ankle in Sunday's heart-stopping victory, flushed three emphatic dunks weeks earlier against the New Jersey Nets. He skied beyond the lowered expectations en route to a rim that seemed higher and long odds that threatened to reach the clouds and even outer space.

A blonde-haired kid once maligned for not doing enough created his own fraternity: Why Not Slamma Jamma Again?

Courtney Lee, afforded a larger role since the trades that jettisoned Shane Battier and Aaron Brooks, pulled up and interrupted his team's woeful shooting performance in L.A. to send a message to the rested Clippers: Instead of folding the tent, we'll look for more stakes to keep it from blowing away in the Memphis Grizzlies' backdraft.

Kyle Lowry flew past Devin Harris and the rest of the problematic, hated Utah Jazz in Sunday's 110-108 triumph. He recorded his first career triple-double—28 points, 11 rebounds, 10 rebounds—and added Harris to the growing list of point guards he has dominated. It's okay, Devin: Deron Williams, Rajon Rondo and Chris Paul can relate.

A once-erratic shooter with nothing more than change-of-pace talent has become the Rockets' knock-down, drag-out ring leader. He works like a long-distance water gun, splashing triples from all areas of the gym.

Former Houston Texans cornerback Dunta Robinson wore controversial shoes that said, "Pay me Rick." The team's GM Rick Smith and Owner Bob McNair, the targets of that stunt, did not pay up and let him walk.

Patrick Patterson said "Play me Rick" by throwing down a vicious putback over LaMarcus Aldridge. Patterson's coach, Rick Adelman, has responded to the lottery pick's undeniable ameliorations by trotting him out there earlier and leaving him out there longer.

The Rockets could not have survived Luis Scola's extended absence without Patterson. The rookie contributed 14 points and 13 rebounds against the Jazz. He has impressed in both a starting role and his accustomed reserve slot.

Scola stays the same. He needed more of his teammates to rise to his competitive level. He also needed more of them to swarm and rotate better to compensate for his defensive shortcomings. He will soon recuperate enough to approximate himself in some big games.

Adelman might require a dynamic, blistering Scola exhibition against, say, the Miami Heat. Or the San Antonio Spurs, Dallas Mavericks and Atlanta Hawks. A few more tough contests stand between the Rockets and the eighth seed. Dispatching every cupcake left is also a must. Don't leave any frosting on those soft, deplorable Minnesota Timberwolves, boys.

Jordan Hill, that inconsistent tall guy who allowed inferior talents to push him around, has rediscovered his comfort zone as a reserve. Adelman surely feels more comfortable now that Hill won't embarrass himself in limited action.

Lowry and even Budinger know how to catch Hill rolling to the basket. His rim rattlers do not intrigue as much, though, as those moments when he impersonates a competent low-post defender.

Goran Dragic has found new life in Houston. He's still as raw as blood-soaked meat transported straight from the kill floor, but his rim forays are tastier than well-seasoned ground beef, and those drives pack more flavor than a medium-rare, exquisite filet mignon.

He can shoot, too.

Brad Miller, at times, seems more like the host of a cable hunting show than an NBA big guy, but the veteran still has a few tricks and shots left within him. Plus, if a deer ever finds its way to the Toyota Center court, Miller will know what to do.

Wisecracks aside, these Rockets are worth watching. Once shackled by defenselessness and uncharacteristic, lousy efforts, they have become a team that knows what it must do and how it must fight to remain in the playoff chase.

The Grizzlies still own the right to face the runaway Spurs in the opening round, but the latest news, that Rudy Gay will miss the remainder of the year after shoulder surgery, has to hurt Memphis. A two-game lead with 11 to go is not insuperable.

Houston won 11-of-14 to afford itself the chance to travel to San Antonio in late April. The Rockets won those 11 in myriad ways.

They muzzled the Portland Trail Blazers, Charlotte Bobcats and Celtics with grimy defense. They benefited from some well-deserved luck versus the Phoenix Suns, when Jared Dudley bricked a fantastic game-winning, three-point look.

They roughed up the Indiana Pacers and New Jersey Nets with superior ball movement and backcuts galore. They endured another Paul Millsap thunderstorm (35 points and a late barrage of treys) to fend off the Jazz. They did just enough to escape Cleveland and Detroit with victories.

They amassed a furious run to put away the depressed Sacramento Kings. They used a potent combination of it all to rally from 16 down against the New Orleans Hornets.

Once sunken and buried after a hands-up, wussy effort at home against the last-place Timberwolves, the Rockets have been reincarnated as the relentless squad that refuses to lose. Two of the three defeats in this mesmerizing span were not decided until a pair of three-pointers skipped off the front rim.

Budinger and Miller clanged those rushed heaves, but the Rockets' ability to hang around in a pair of back-to-back situations said as much as the somber final scores. They said they would rebound from those defeats to mount more winning streaks, and they did.

The current one should reach five when the Rockets host the hapless Golden State Warriors tomorrow night.

Houston has played better and competed harder than a New York team with Amar'e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony. The Celtics wish they could get on a similar roll.

The Rockets cannot take back miserable marks in November and January, but they can continue this run and take down the Grizzlies. Even if that postseason dream dies, one reality should stand above the rest: The only squads with better records in March, save for the Denver Nuggets, were vying for a championship.

To remain in the eighth-seed hunt, Houston must steal at least two of the remaining games against Miami, Dallas, San Antonio and Atlanta. Did anyone figure the Rockets would trounce the Celtics in a Friday laugher?

After ending the season's longest homestand, the players get three days to rest before a rematch with the Three Me-Egos. I'll give them a chance Sunday in Miami, since I mistakenly didn't give them one versus Boston.

My bad.

And, yes, the Rockets really did lead the reigning Eastern Conference champions by 29 points in the third quarter.

All this winning has given the Rockets more than just a reason to tout Hayes as a worthy all-defense selection. Once trailing in its playoff pursuit by five contests, Houston has done anything and everything necessary to make the final 11 regular-season dates matter.

See you in San Antonio? The Rockets' now cohesive roster—from Hayes and Lowry all the way to Dragic and Miller—has shown me enough.

Different methods, same message: Forget sneaking into the playoffs. Let's roar.

Mute the Grizzlies? This surging team, like Miller, knows its way around a forest.

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