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Houston Rockets Finally Blast Off Without Tracy McGrady

Robert Kleeman@@RobertKleemanSenior Analyst IMay 1, 2009

HOUSTON - APRIL 26:  Guard Ron Artest #96 of the Houston Rockets reacts after being fouled by Brandon Roy #7 of the Portland Trail Blazers in Game Four of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2009 NBA Playoffs at Toyota Center on April 26, 2009 in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Twelve years of choke jobs, embarrassment and playoff futility ended emphatically Thursday night when the Houston Rockets thumped the Portland Trail Blazers 92-76.

The Houston Rockets last won a playoff series in 1997. Then, Rockets commentators Clyde Drexler and Matt Bullard still played for the team.

Hakeem Olajuwon still muscled in 20 and 10. John Stockton would beat them that year with a heartbreaking trey. Karl Malone and Stockton would lose to Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls in the NBA Finals.

That's how long ago it was.

Stockton's game-winner acted as the precursor to the curse. For 12 long, arduous years, the Rockets stumbled and could not get up again.

They either missed the playoffs or won just enough games to rip out the hearts of Houstonians when the postseason arrived. They blew 2-0 leads against the Dallas Mavericks and Utah Jazz.

They fell 4-1 to Shaq and Kobe's Los Angeles Lakers. They will face Kobe again in the next round.

In 2008, the team responded to Yao Ming's season-ending injury with the completion of 22 consecutive regular season victories, second most in NBA history. The Utah Jazz exposed Yao's absence and clubbed them again when it mattered.

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The Rockets of the last 12 years have been defined as much by the futility as the players who participated in it.

Becoming a first round doormat passes when you routinely employ talentless rosters and inept coaches. Not when your owner spends money and fetches players with the skill, confidence and athleticism to win in the playoffs.

The Rockets tried to extend Rudy Tomjanovich's run. They traversed four defensive but sour seasons with Jeff Van Gundy.

The glory years were supposed to make a loud return when management selected Yao Ming.

They instead became the quiet, agonizing years. The Rockets wanted to find a player who could help Yao make some noise.

So, Owner Leslie Alexander opened his wallet and sent away one expensive letdown to acquire another. Steve Francis for Tracy McGrady?

"Believe me, something special is going to happen," T-Mac said at his introductory press conference.

Everyone knew he possessed the God-given talent to deliver a championship. They learned the hard way that he lacked the sagacity.

Through three playoff exits, Alexander stuck by his exorbitant decision. He still refers to McGrady as a "competitor" and "superstar."

How fitting, then, that the $23 million man finally won his team a playoff series by not playing.

Do not interpret this article as a low blow or an "I told you so" barrage.

McGrady has suffered enough.

He spent most of the season hobbled and frustrated with his spotty, dispassionate play. He remedied the problem by agreeing to let doctors cut open both of his legs.

Microfracture surgery has ended more careers than it has extended. Now, McGrady must cope with two opposite possibilities.

With stellar rehabilitation and hard work—he's not known for either—he could return like Amare Stoudemire or Jason Kidd did. Both regained their All-Star forms after the expected recuperation period.

He could also flame out like Jamal Mashburn, and that's why the Rockets needed Thursday night so badly.

They needed to validate a season in which they overcame an injury deluge and found cohesion because of it. They needed Yao and Shane Battier to separate themselves from McGrady's disastrous exits.

They needed to give fans more than just a 50-win season. General Manager Daryl Morey donated veteran starter Rafer Alston to the Orlando Magic to land Kyle Lowry and promote Aaron Brooks.

They needed to corroborate that exchange, too.

McGrady might never play again. The Rockets routed the young Blazers and made that possibility irrelevant.

Yao labored his way to a gritty 17-point, 10-rebound, two-block performance. Battier grabbed a playoff career high nine rebounds and scored seven points.

The evening's best story, though, was Ron Artest. The mercurial forward offered the Rockets plenty of reasons to question his acquisition.

In his first months as a Rocket, Artest seemed content to pitch a tent behind the arc and fire away. He bricked those three-pointers at a record rate.

There were many nights when he abandoned the defensive game plan and too many possessions where he refused to run the play the point guard had called. He might be as responsible for Alston's exit as Brooks or Lowry.

Thursday night, he rebounded from a dreadful 3-of-9 shooting performance in game five  and played the best 48 minutes of his career. This was why the Rockets coveted him.

He bulldozed his way to the basket. He used his lanky frame to draw fouls. He harangued Brandon Roy into Kobe Bryant-esque shots.

Most of all, he pushed a desparate team over the hump the way determined leaders do. He earned a $7 million salary in one game the way McGrady could not earn his $23 million over an entire year.

In doing so, he cemented the team's largest loss as its greatest gain.

Most national analysts buried the Rockets when McGrady's season ended. They seemed ready to pitch in for a tombstone when Morey said bye-bye to Alston.

In truth, that's when the season started. These Rockets are at their best when things look their worst.

"They don't make it easy," Adelman likes to say.

Lady luck didn't make matters any easier. The calamity climaxed when street thugs shot forward Carl Landry in the leg.

He recovered quickly and was there Thursday to contribute six points off the bench.

Morey declared guard Von Wafer inactive after doctors diagnosed a series of pains as back spasms. Oh, he played Thursday night, too. His five points energized the offense.

How many basketball aficionados, including a certain community leader on this site, picked Portland to win in six or seven?

Given the Rockets' run of catastrophe, picking the don't-know-any-better Blazers was understandable. Only former coach Van Gundy believed Houston could conquer the first round sans home court advantage.

This goes back to McGrady. That he wasn't at Toyota Center for the team's high point only makes his leadership in its low point more glaring.

Then, in January, the Toronto Raptors and Milwaukee Bucks spanked the supposed contenders in disgraceful displays.

McGrady quit on those nights. Maybe his knees hurt like he said, or maybe the pressure consumed him.

Everyone in the Rockets organization owes him a thank you card. They know now what they can be without him.

McGrady's career-threatening surgery makes divorce papers inevitable.

The Rockets should ask two questions.

Does anybody have a pen, and where do we sign?

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