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Rockets displaying a high tolerance for pain

Rockets displaying a high tolerance for pain
AUBURN HILLS, Mich. - As an analyst of statistical data, by definition Rockets general manager Daryl Morey and his merry band of mathematicians look at past events and attempt to predict the future.

But it did not take an MIT education to see this coming.

For all the details within the Rockets season, now a week into its second half, the Rockets have been pretty much what he expected. The turns that were predictable and some that could never have been have brought the Rockets to their customary place within the pack of Western Conference playoff teams carrying usual hopes that this time their oft-injured stars would align at the right time to bring much more.

"I expected we'd have ups and downs with injuries; I think that's our history," Morey said. "Hopefully we get through it in a positive way and be healthy and playing well at the end. I think we still have a chance to accomplish that.

"We felt like we knew it was going to be a long season and have to weather some things. We've shown the ability to win games, even not at full strength, which I think is a testament to the players and coaching staff. We'd like to get into the top group of teams - Cleveland, Orlando, the Lakers, Boston - when we get everyone back. I think that's our next step, to start to play like we're in that group.

"It's a big step, obviously. It's not easy to play at that level. I think we got the coaching staff and players to have a shot to do that."

The Rockets had thought they have gotten through the tough times, and in some ways they have.

Their familiar injury troubles came with an unusual twist, as Tracy McGrady and Ron Artest went in and out of the lineup so often that the Rockets had 14 sets of starters the first 37 games and had to change their starters in a stretch of 10 consecutive games.

Along the way, they have beaten some of the NBA's best teams - Boston, San Antonio, Utah (twice), Orlando, Denver, Phoenix and Dallas - and have lost to some of its worse - Memphis, Washington, Toronto, Indiana (twice) and the Clippers.

They have beaten four first-place and lost to four last-place teams.

After a dreadful start to their longest road trip of the season in which they surrendered meekly in Toronto, they won in Boston to start a stretch with wins in six of seven games. They headed back on the road feeling as if they had righted themselves, elevating their level of play in time for McGrady to return, likely tonight against the Pistons with Artest soon to follow.

Nowhere to go but up

"It's what we've expected since day one," forward Shane Battier said. "I don't really take as much satisfaction because I expect this level of play from this team. It's taken us a while to get to this point, but this is what we're capable of doing."

They received a reminder of their perilous history when Yao Ming was forced to leave Friday's loss with a bruised right knee.

Without each member of their presumed "Big Three," they came back from a 17-point deficit and got within two before falling to the Pacers.

The injury was not considered serious. With x-rays negative, Yao was listed as day-to-day and is a game-time decision tonight.

Progress, the Rockets believed, could continue.

"I think we are playing better, showing improvement little by little," forward Luis Scola said. "We make mistakes every game and we will continue to do that. But we know where we want to go.

"Now soon Tracy and Luther (Head) and Ron are going to be back and that's going to be huge for us. If we can continue to play this way, we're only going to go up."

The Rockets' goal heading into their five-game, 12-day homestand was to raise the level of their play without Artest and McGrady to have them join a better team than the one they left. The sense, particularly after beating the Jazz and Nuggets, was that they did that.

"I think we played well on both ends, except for the Denver game on defense," Battier said. "We're playing at a pretty good level right now. We're playing together.

"We like who we are today a lot more than we did a month ago. That has evolved from teamwork and playing hard. It is on Ron and Tracy to do that when they come back."

This has been the Rockets' history, too. Last season, the Rockets had begun to turn things around when McGrady was out. After consecutive losses, McGrady returned for a win against the Spurs. A week later, the Rockets took off on a 22-game winning streak.

"I was out," McGrady said. "Guys started playing extremely well and when I came back, I didn't really just want to just fit in, but I didn't want to mess up the groove. I deferred a little bit and let guys keep confidence and play with the same intensity they played with while I was out. If they do that and Ron and I come back and we're playing well, the sky's the limit."

Don't settle for good

Having gone so long without postseason success, the Rockets' limits won't be tested until the playoffs.

"At the end of the day, that's how everybody is judged, by how we do in the postseason," Morey said. "It doesn't matter if I think that's how it should be; it is. I'm OK with that."

With that in mind, the Rockets hope the return of McGrady and Artest will allow a good team to become better, perhaps even to the levels of those elevated if premature preseason expectations.

"There's no point during the regular season where you settle and say, ?All right, we've arrived,'?" Rockets guard Brent Barry said. "We have to progress. Now we're going to have the variables of Tracy and Ron coming back into the lineup so we're going to be faced with a new set of circumstances we're going to have to figure out and figure out quickly without disruption.

Stars aligning

"I don't see any real problem when you're talking about the level of play Ron and Tracy bring to your team. You're talking about two star players coming back into the fold. It's a matter of how that's done. We have to continue to move forward."

As with last season, the schedule lightens considerably in February. A year ago, the Rockets built momentum they had hoped they would carry into the postseason and then to their first playoff series win since 1996-97. Instead, Yao Ming went out 12 games into the streak and Rafer Alston missed the first two games of the series with the Jazz and the last half of Game 6, all losses.

So far, the Rockets believe they again have elevated their play enough to build momentum at full strength in the coming weeks.

"A lot of times you're forged during adversity," Battier said. "Everyone knows you have to play harder and compensate for the lack of talent when those guys aren't in there.

"But when that happens, sometimes you find that everybody's playing harder and that turns into something.

"We have two things in our favor. We have improving health and we have a favorable home schedule in February and March. I'm not satisfied, but I'm not disappointed either.

" More important, we're in the thick of the playoff race and we still have our best Basketball ahead of us. I believe and that's all we can really ask for at this point."

More than that, given their history, it is probably all that could have been expected.

Rockets update

Friday: Pacers 107, Rockets 102.

Record: 27-17.

Today: at Detroit Pistons. the Palace at Auburn Hills; 5:30 p.m.

TV/radio: FSH, ESPN (also available on ESPN in HD); 610 AM and 850 AM (Spanish).

Tracy McGrady

28 Games played

16 Games missed

Rafer Alston

38 Games played

6 Games missed

Yao Ming

43 Games played

1 Game missed

Ron Artest

31 Games played

13 Games missed

Shane Battier

22 Games played

22 Games missed

Author: Fox Sports
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Added: January 28, 2009


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