The Houston Rockets weren’t even assured of a playoff berth when Tracy McGrady played his final game of the season Feb. 9, but thanks to an impressive run without their seven-time All-Star, they’re suddenly on the brink of taking over the division lead.
A road victory over the San Antonio Spurs on Sunday afternoon would vault the red-hot Rockets past their in-state rivals and into a slim lead in the Southwest Division heading into their final 10 games of the season.
“Who would’ve thought we’d be here?” Houston forward Shane Battier said. “We’ve stayed the course, stayed together and we’ve set ourselves up for this matchup.”
Coming into the season, the Rockets (46-25) had high hopes of surpassing the Spurs and earning their first division title since 1993-94—a quest seemingly derailed by inconsistency and injuries to McGrady and veteran Ron Artest.
But they’ve been at their best since McGrady’s last appearance, even after the star guard decided on season-ending knee surgery last month. Houston has gone 15-4 since the last time McGrady saw the court.
Although the Rockets lost 88-85 at home to San Antonio last Saturday, they’ve now won three straight while the Spurs (45-23) have dropped two of three, cutting Houston’s deficit to a half-game even though San Antonio still holds a two-game edge in the loss column.
A victory Sunday would give the Rockets a slightly better winning percentage than the Spurs, who’ve played three fewer games.
The teams sit in second and third overall in the Western Conference, although five other clubs are within four games of San Antonio - including New Orleans, which is two games back in the division.
A key road win over the Hornets started Houston’s three-game winning streak, which continued with a double-overtime victory over Detroit and a 107-88 win over Minnesota on Friday night as seven different Rockets scored in double figures.
But the remaining schedule looks especially difficult for the Rockets, who play seven of their last 11 on the road - with five of those seven against teams with winning records. They’re 17-17 on the road this season.
“We know that we have 11 games left and we play a lot of road games against good teams for the most part,” Houston coach Rick Adelman said. “You just have to keep going out, you just have to keep trying to win games and see what happens.”
The Rockets have had major problems winning in San Antonio, where they’ve dropped three straight and 20 of their last 22. Another home victory would give the Spurs the season series after the teams split four games in 2007-08.
But San Antonio continues to play without injured guard Manu Ginobili, and has been struggling to score while dropping three of its last five.
Friday night’s 80-77 home loss to Boston marked the second time the Spurs failed to reach 80 points in the last three games - the other in an ugly 78-76 loss at Oklahoma City on Monday.
“We’re better than the way we played and executed at the end,” Spurs guard Roger Mason said Friday. “It’s a tough loss but we’re in a tight situation right now and Sunday is going to be big for us.”
One major problem has been San Antonio’s bench, which contributed only 15 points against the Celtics after scoring 13 versus the Thunder.
While Tony Parker averaged 26.5 points in those games and has now scored at least 20 points in seven straight games, Tim Duncan has gone 12 straight games without scoring that many and has missed time recently with sore knees.