November 27, 2009

Aaron Brooks stands on the side of the Houston Rockets' practice court, returning reporters' questions with humor that is drier than a sun-baked saltine.

There's the joking jab at management, which kept him in the dark about last February's trade of Rafer Alston that first gave Brooks the starting job at point guard. There's the assertion that, if it came to it, Brooks could take down the healthy rump of teammate Chuck Hayes. There's the claim that, contrary to the brains behind NBA 2K, he can actually lift his 6-foot frame -- "or 5-11, or 5-10, or whatever it is I am," he said -- high enough to dunk.

The 24-year-old Seattle native is smiling, his goatee giving way to a grin. A remarkable achievement, that grin, when one looks at the Rockets' difficult circumstances.

Consider: Franchise center Yao Ming is sidelined for the season with a foot injury. Tracy McGrady, a seven-time All-Star, has yet to play this season as he recovers from microfracture knee surgery. Ron Artest, a versatile scorer and stout defender, departed as a free agent last summer. With those players either injured or gone, Houston began 2009-2010 without its top three scorers from last season.

And yet, Brooks' smile persists. He's asked about the situation, the predictions of decline, the sacking of Houston's hopes. He's clear when he speaks.

"I don't care," he said. "I couldn't care less. Really. Just because the critics come out and say that [another team] is going to win, that doesn't give them 10-plus points to start the game. So it doesn't really matter to me."

Brooks is playing that way -- as are his teammates. With the speedy Brooks fueling a balanced offense, the Rockets have defied expectations by opening the season 8-6. The encouraging start has included victories against division leaders the Trail Blazers and the Lakers and a rare road win for an opponent at Utah.

The transition to the team's new identity is obvious. With a gaping hole in the middle, coach Rick Adelman has his offense playing freer, faster. Last year, the Rockets were last in fast-break points and played at the league's 19th-fastest pace. This year, Houston is fourth in fast-break points as the ninth-fastest team.

The quicker approach suits Brooks. He's haphazard with the ball, almost manic, and stopping him is like trying to catch a housefly with your bare hands. His first step might be as quick as anyone's.

"Speed -- you can't teach that," Portland coach Nate McMillan said. "No one guy's going to be able to defend him."

McMillan should know. In the first round of last year's playoffs, Brooks averaged 15.3 points in Houston's six-game victory against the Blazers. Brooks has followed that up this season with 19- and 28-point performances in two early meetings with Portland -- the type of scoring that is becoming the norm for the third-year player. Brooks is averaging 16.3 points, second on the team and seventh among NBA point guards.

"We had a different team [last year], so he was able to do different things," Adelman said. "It's been a total adjustment. ... Now we're asking him to do a lot more."

But Brooks is still young, and with youth comes impudence, and with impudence comes inconsistency. Brooks can be streaky with his offense (though he's been steadier early this season), and he's also among the league leaders with 3.4 turnovers (to go with 5.7 assists).

"He's still a point guard in transition," Battier said. "He's a cog. He's a big cog. But by no means is it [all] on his shoulders."

Still, Brooks' shoulders seem up to the task. Battier believes that once Brooks settles into his role -- an outcome that appears imminent -- he can put up 20 points per game. And as his play goes, so too will Houston's fortunes.

"His maturation is going to be a huge part of who we are and how successful we're going to be," Adelman said.

Even if Brooks doesn't figure it all out this season, his first 82-game slog as a starter, the Rockets have seen enough to want him back next year, too: Houston picked up its option on the fourth year of Brooks' contract. This, undoubtedly, gives Brooks another reason to smile. And another reason to blow back a sardonic response that he's quickly becoming known for.

"Well, that's just excellent," he said wryly when asked about remaining with the Rockets at least through the 2010-11 season.

He's not derisive, not sarcastic -- it is apparent that Brooks, the No. 26 pick in the 2007 draft, couldn't be happier in Houston. Yet there he is, jabbing and feigning, slicing through the contract's importance like it was a slow-footed perimeter defender.

"Management knows who I am, and Houston knows who I am, so that's all that matters," he said. "Just keep picking up my options."

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