The Houston Rockets' season ends tonight where it began. One night after a lackadaisical home win over the Memphis Grizzlies, the Rockets headed to Dallas for an October 30 showdown with the Mavericks. They stomped Dallas 112-100 and seemed destined for one of those Grace-Kelly-into-the-sunset kind of years.
Ron Artest shook off his rough shooting in the first three quarters to dominate the fourth. Yao Ming manned the inside with 30 points and 13 rebounds. The Mavericks could find no fourth quarter answer for either player.
Even though Tracy McGrady sat the entire final period, this game looked to be a pleasant preview of the season to come.
Houston fans couldn't wait to see what Houston's makeshift "big three" would look like after a few months together.
The basketball gods made sure that moment would never come. These are the Rockets, of course.
The frustration began in Oklahoma City. Doesn't a lot of the world's suffering begin there? Yes, I'm kidding.
Artest, Yao and McGrady each sustained minor but worrisome injuries in a 100-89 win. Oh, the cost of beating a 20-something win team.
With Yao out and the other two hardly at full-strength, the Rockets returned home to face the Mavericks for a nationally-televised game. They turned out an effort almost as embarrassing as the number of empty seats in the lower bowl.
Imposters, it seemed, had hijacked the real Rockets. When would Houston get its 22-wins-in-a-row team back?
The agonizing answer: February, at the earliest.
The Rockets won a title, all right. The banner could have read, "biggest tease in the Western Conference."
They clobbered the Phoenix Suns on the road and rocked the San Antonio Spurs by 19 points at home. Then, they outdid themselves and made sure to pepper in some inexplicable losses to last-place teams.
The Rockets lost nine games to the league's bottom-feeders, including two to the Memphis Grizzlies. Those loser efforts, not defeats to playoff peers, are the ones the team should rue if it fails to secure home court advantage in the first round tonight.
McGrady missed a breakaway dunk in that clunker against the Bucks and symbolically stood there while Jamario Moon blew by him for a dunk in Toronto.
Lacking the explosiveness necessary to play with confidence, McGrady shut it down and opted for career-threatening microfracture surgery.
When McGrady left, so did the excuses. His departure saved the Rockets' season and has now equipped them to win at least one playoff round.
When the lights clicked on earlier this year, Houston fans started to witness consistently fine basketball.
Now, the Rockets prepare for the final game of the season as one of the NBA's best defensive units. The New Orleans Hornets scored a season-low 66 points in Houston on 35 percent shooting Monday night.
That 20-point thumping secured the Rockets best season ever at Toyota Center (33-9), and their best since the Hakeem years. A win tonight would also clinch the team's first division title since the 1993-94 season.
They embody the definition of 'team,' and for that, Houstonians should be proud.
The Rockets are clearly not in the Los Angeles Lakers' class, as evidenced by this season's four-game sweep. They are likely not championship caliber, either.
However, a team that has not tasted playoff success since 1997 needs to win at least one round before using the 'c' word again.
The Rockets are as flawed as any Western Conference playoff squad.
Their best player does not demand the ball in crunch time, instead letting teammates jack up wild shots or hog the ball. Yao Ming should touch the ball on every late game possession, and if he doesn't, he should pull an Olajuwon and bitch about it.
When things get rough in a game, their second best player goes off the deep end and invents his own one-on-five offense. It's not pretty.
Rafer Alston was shipped out partially because he clashed with Artest too much. Skip-to-my-Lou did not skip or smile when Artest refused to run the play he had called.
Aaron Brooks and Kyle Lowry are as capable of throwing up no-point nights as they are 20-point ones. They are green, and at times, still learning how to play the point on the NBA level.
Enough about those flaws.
I spent so much of the season blasting these Rockets, and they deserved every bit of it.
Now, they deserve a column that talks about what they do right. They do a lot right these days.
Here are five things I love about the Rockets.
1. Von Wafer
Asked about the chances Wafer had of making the opening day roster, astute General Manager Daryl Morey said, "one percent." Morey and the rest of the Rockets brass figured Wafer would compete with D.J. Strawberry for the final spot and be an insurance shooter.
Benchwarmer? Not even.
Wafer impressed the coaches by drilling seven-of-nine three-pointers in a preseason game at Memphis, and eventually leapfrogged Strawberry for the 15th spot on the team.
If his shooting was spotty, his defense was lackadaisical. Adelman told reporters early in the season that Wafer would remain a situational player.
That changed when Artest and McGrady missed time with nagging injuries. The misfortune of two star-caliber players led to the unexpected emergence of one of this year's best stories.
Since his days as a High School All-American and successful college career at Florida State, Wafer has battled to keep his NBA dream alive. After slipping to 46th in his draft class, he bounced around four teams. The Lakers and Denver Nuggets, two teams the Rockets could face in later rounds of the playoffs, both cut him.
Two years ago, he was picked 30th in a D-League draft.
He has used those tribulations as motivational fuel and now owns the rotation spot that seemed so unlikely months ago. The fans call him "Super Von."
Rockets play-by-play announcer Craig Ackerman admits a bit of a man crush. When Wafer hits big shots, and yes he's hit more than a few, Ackerman uses a cheesy but memorable line.
"He's not a cookie, he's not a cracker, he's Von Wafer!"
From a 14-point fourth quarter against the Cleveland Cavaliers to 20 points Monday night against the Hornets, the surprise hits keep coming from the resilient Wafer.
He has taken noticeable strides with his defense, too.
Wafer's remarkable story proves that hard work can get a person places. In this case, from near NBA exit to key reserve and a probable multi-year deal next summer.
How can anybody not root for this guy?
2. Carl Landry
Last year it was a broken tooth. In mid-March, it was a gunshot wound.
The can't-catch-a-break Rockets' banged-up season took another blow when news broke that athletic forward Carl Landry had been in the leg. It was the sort of unbelievable story that was believable given the Rockets run of crap luck.
The team had just returned to Houston after a game in New Orleans, and Landry was hungry. He stopped somewhere to grab a bite and then headed for his home near downtown.
A car bumped into Landry's. When he left his vehicle to assess the damage, the gang members inside the other car jumped out and targeted him. Landry did nothing wrong.
He told the Houston Chronicle that one of the shooters stood about five feet away and could have killed him with a single shot. A bullet grazed his right leg.
That he managed to run away while he was bleeding profusely is a miracle.
That Landry returned just three weeks after the incident shows you how tough he is.
If teams could do the 2007 draft over again, you think Landry would still drop to the second round?
Would the Rockets still get him for mere cash considerations?
Landry might never be an All-Star basketball player, but he is already an All-Star human being.
Safe prediction: his grit, work on the boards and athleticism will contribute in a big way to at least one playoff victory in the next week.
3. Who scores? Who cares? Rockets do it by committee
When McGrady's season ended, the Rockets knew that a combination of players, not just one, would have to pick up the slack.
The Rockets did not expect Dikembe Mutombo to be one of them. Morey and several players convinced Mutombo to play his final year in Houston.
They considered him an insurance policy, not a 20 minutes per game rotation cog.
No one was sure what he had left. When Yao missed key tilts against the Hornets and Golden State Warriors, Deke showed them.
Nearing his 43rd birthday, Mutombo continues to be the ageless wonder. He grabbed 15 rebounds and blocked four shots in a win over the Warriors last week. His double-figure scoring was a bonus.
Such contributions have become the norm for the new look Rockets.
Luis Scola scored a career-high 28 points in Golden State. Wafer dropped 20 on the Hornets. Carl Landry has won more than a few games with his hustle and hops.
Kyle Lowry and Aaron Brooks have already upgraded the point guard position. Lowry scored several buckets in transition Monday night that sparked the game-changing run.
The Rockets can close by committee. They also have one of the two best centers in the game to get them easy scores at the basket.
With Yao controlling the middle, Scola and Landry as the forward tandem and a variety of perimeter threats, the Rockets can run a more complex offense than they ever did with McGrady.
When the shooters are confident and Yao gets going, the Rockets offense is a beauty to watch.
4. Team defense
The Rockets rank in the top three in field goal defense and points allowed. The fantastic defensive stands are numerous.
LeBron James: 7-of-21 from the field, first assist-less night of his career in February contest.
Chris Paul: first not even single-double Monday night.
Dirk Nowitzki: 4-of-18 from the field in a February contest.
While Artest and Shane Battier deserve a lion's share of the credit, no Rockets player should be denied praise for the kind of work only a team can do.
With the exception of Kobe Bryant, few superstar talents have enjoyed easy nights against Houston.
What's that you say? Comparing Yao Ming to Dwight Howard is an embarrassment?
Howard scored 12 points, eight below his average, and grabbed 10 rebounds in a matchup with Yao last week. Yao has won seven-of-their nine meetings.
Howard did not score his first of five buckets until Yao left the game in the first quarter for a rest.
Yao scored 23 points and pulled down 13 rebounds. The Rockets won 93-83.
A shoddy road trip to Phoenix and L.A. aside, the Rockets have made the letter 'W' a frequent occurrence in the last few months. They have done it with defense.
5. Excuses? We don't need no stinkin' excuses
Most of all, I love the way this team looks at its current predicament. If the Rockets lose to the Mavericks, they will likely open the playoffs on the road. They could play Portland, Dallas or San Antonio.
Adelmanhanded each of the players a piece of paper with all of the playoff scenarios at Tuesday's practice, according to the Houston Chronicle.
“I’m going to go home and have a paper airplane fight with my wife,” Shane Battier said. “That’s what I’m going to do with that piece of paper, because it means nothing to us. We have to go to Dallas. We have to play well. And we have to win.”
The Rockets are focused on what matters. They sound and look like a team ripe to win a playoff series.
Instead of lamenting McGrady's absence or using missed games from Yao or Landry as reasons to sulk, they have accepted continual adversity as a challenge.
Instead of losing it when Artest does, the rest of the Rockets accept that he is not perfect. They know he wants to win.
The Rockets second-half revival can be traced to a return to the basics.
With so much on the line tonight and so much out of their control, the Rockets know what to do.
Just win, baby.