A season-ending injury to Tracy McGrady and the trade of their point guard appeared to signal the Rockets could have trouble just making the playoffs. Instead, Houston has flourished and now finds itself atop the Southwest Division and second in the Western Conference.
The Rockets will try to expand their slim leads Tuesday night when they visit the Utah Jazz, one of the few teams that has solved them recently.
Houston (47-25) lost McGrady for the remainder of the season after he underwent microfracture surgery on his left knee last month. The All-Star swingman hasn’t played since a 124-112 loss at Milwaukee on Feb. 9. Ten days later, the club traded Rafer Alston to Orlando in a three-team deal that landed it guard Kyle Lowry from Memphis and forward Brian Cook from the Magic.
The Rockets, though, haven’t slowed down, going 16-4 without McGrady. They won again Sunday, beating San Antonio 87-85 on the road to move one-half game ahead of the Spurs in the Southwest.
San Antonio, Northwest Division-leading Denver, New Orleans, Portland and Utah (43-26) are all within three games of Houston for second in the crowded West standings.
“I would say it’s been a surprising climb to first,” Rockets forward Shane Battier said. “We’ve had so much … just melees this year with all the injuries we’ve had and lineup shuffles and trades. I don’t know that too many people thought we would be here today.”
Ron Artest, who had 24 points Sunday, has been instrumental in spurring Houston’s impressive run, averaging 19.8 points in starting all 20 games for McGrady. Prior to that stretch, Artest averaged 15.8 points in 39 games.
He put up 25 points in a 101-94 loss at Utah on March 4 after the Rockets took the two previous meetings at home.
The Jazz are third in the Northwest, embroiled in a tight race with the Nuggets and Trail Blazers as all three are within 1 1/2 games of each other.
Utah will likely have Mehmet Okur back in the lineup after he was poked in the eye and had to leave Friday’s 101-94 win at Oklahoma City. The forward-center suffered the injury as he was hit in the face when the Thunder’s Chucky Atkins made a swipe at the ball during the second quarter.
“It feels a lot better now but it still isn’t 100 percent,” Okur said after the victory. “I’m going to be alright, hopefully.”
Despite the injury, Okur scored 12 points in just over 12 minutes against the Thunder. He’s averaging 17.6 points and 7.9 rebounds on the season.
Jazz guard Deron Williams is looking to build on a strong performance after he hit his first eight shots of the second half to finish with 24 points and 11 assists Friday. He totaled 23 points and 17 assists in the previous two games.
Williams scored 26 points on 11-for-19 shooting and dished out 14 assists against Houston on March 4.