Wednesday April 1st, 2009

HOUSTON -- What follows is the strangest path in the West to earning home-court advantage in the playoffs:

1. Surrender your most accomplished star to season-ending knee surgery.

2. Trade your starting point guard for a backup.

3. Rely on two stars who have missed 226 games over the last four years.

Such is the game plan for the Rockets, who are 17-5 since Tracy McGrady left in February to undergo microfracture knee surgery. They've made the league a better place by not only contending with San Antonio for the lead in the Southwest but also by restoring Orlando's hopes by dealing starting point guard Rafer Alston to the Magic as part of the three-team deadline trade that brought Kyle Lowry as a backup point to Houston. In the meantime, Yao Ming and Ron Artest have overcome their issues of years past to emerge as reliable stars for the Rockets.

None of this was predictable last fall, when the Rockets appeared to have a team capable of winning a playoff series for the first time in a dozen years. They're still reaching for that goal, though by an entirely different means.

Once a team built around the offense of McGrady and Yao, Houston now uses a blue-collar rotation, pushed up the floor by young point guards Aaron Brooks and Lowry. The new look is embodied by Luis Scola, Shane Battier and Artest, who provide the defensive energy that enables Yao to finish with his passing and scoring at the other end.

Coach Rick Adelman's record of success is taken for granted -- he's headed to the playoffs for the 16th time in 18 years -- but he should be among the Coach of the Year favorites for rewriting and then installing a relatively bug-free operating system throughout the season. It hasn't been as easy as he's made it look.

"The thing he refers a lot to when he's speaking to us in the locker room," guard Brent Barry said of Adelman, "is how resilient this team has been and how much it's responded over the last season and this season. It's the one thing that he feels like the players can hang their hat on."

The team that won 22 straight last season despite of injuries to Yao and McGrady had the same stubbornness as this group, which overcame McGrady's one-legged ineffectiveness, Battier's absence for 22 games as he recovered from ankle surgery, and an ankle sprain that limited Artest for much of the first half. The Rockets are hoping for the return of backup forward Carl Landry, who suffered a bullet wound to his left calf as the victim of a late-night shooting March 17.

"I had an uneasy feeling when you come into a season and five of your top six players had surgery," Adelman said. "I've never had that before -- and it wasn't just minor surgeries."

As ugly as the Rockets looked for much of the early season with the key players around Yao limping in and out of the trainer's room, they were an impressive 31-21 when McGrady stepped aside for good.

Houston is now 28-11 without McGrady this year, leading to speculation that the Rockets would be better off without him. But when healthy, he is a career 22.4-point scorer and one of the league's best passers. In his absence, the Rockets are having to do more with less. Instead of running the fluid passing game that distinguished his contending teams in Portland and Sacramento, Adelman has pieced together an offense that runs via defensive stops.

"Tracy was a guy we went through in the half court, and what made this team successful was those two guys,'' Adelman said of McGrady and Yao. "We have not run offensively what we would like to run because there just hasn't been the continuity. You have to adjust to your personnel. You can't force a certain way of play on them."

Artest has turned into a complementary three-point shooter (a career-best 41.2 percent) while averaging 17.0 points and creating zero public disturbances. Yao's minutes have been limited wisely to 33.4 coming off the Olympics last summer; as a result, he has missed only four games while leading the team with 19.6 points, 9.8 rebounds and 1.9 blocks.

The other indispensable Rocket has been 6-foot-9 Scola, an undersized power forward who has been among the league's hardest-working players while averaging 12.7 points and 8.8 rebounds.

"Scola has been our MVP, hands down," Battier said. "He's been our best player. He's been so consistent for us and he's really held us together. He's not a verbal guy but he's just played, just his passion ... and Yao's been great at times, he's been an anchor for us as well."

Can they win the championship? It will be tough to manage enough scoring without McGrady. A realistic hope is to win a playoff series and provide extended postseason experience for everyone from Yao to Brooks and Lowry, setting up the team to go deeper in the next couple of years with either a healthy McGrady or his replacement (as his contract expires after next season).

So tight is the top of the West that a short losing streak over the closing two weeks could drop the Rockets into the bottom of the bracket.

"That's why I'm hoping we're going to finish strong," Adelman said.

After so much upheaval, Adelman would like to see their resilience rewarded.

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