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Rockets have liftoff

Adrian Wojnarowski
Yahoo Sports

HOUSTON – They barely were standing in the end, staggering to the finish line of a long night, a longer season. Yao Ming reached out for Tracy McGrady, and McGrady back to Yao, and they hugged Monday, holding up each other in the middle of the floor. All the big noise descended in a surround sound of a celebration in the Toyota Center.

As it turned out, these Houston Rockets stars weren't just holding up each other but the franchise, too.

The Rockets wouldn't need a victory Wednesday in Salt Lake City to secure home-court advantage against Utah in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs because they had gone the distance in this dizzying, defiant 120-117 victory over Phoenix.

McGrady had 39 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists in one of the most complete offensive nights in Houston history. Yao had 34 points and nine boards, refusing to let the Suns run him out of relevance as they often do.

Together, McGrady and Yao had secured an improbable 52nd victory in this patchwork Rockets season, beating the Suns for the first time in seven tries. All things considered, together they punctuated a regular season as accomplished as anyone achieved in the NBA this year.

"It feels like winning a playoff series," Yao said later.

"One of the great accomplishments of my career," McGrady said.

As the Toyota Center turned into a rollicking, rolling revival of self-congratulations, Houston coach Jeff Van Gundy marched straight through his reveling players, never stopping to study the spontaneous scene.

He won't be coach of the year, but no one has made a bigger difference this season. With such a limited bench and with so many spotty contributors, he has led the Rockets to a 52-29 record that would've been beyond even the most generous of forecasts.

Somehow with Yao missing 33 games and T-Mac's bad back costing him 10 – and pedestrian Chuck Hayes starting at power forward and Dikembe Mutombo having been exhumed into major minutes – these Rockets still are marching into the playoffs as the fourth West home team behind the holy trinity of Dallas, Phoenix and San Antonio. As much as anything, they are a validation of Van Gundy's vision. These aren't his Larry Johnson-Patrick Ewing Knicks, but Houston has undergone a transformation of toughness and tenacity.

Suddenly, McGrady is playing his most inspired ball of the season, Yao is creeping closer to his MVP-esque form prior to breaking his leg and these Rockets – dogged defenders, relentless rebounders – have become an intriguing playoff proposition in the West. Ten years have passed since Houston won a playoff series. McGrady never has advanced past the first round, nor has Yao. Shane Battier has lost 12 straight postseason games.

Hours before the game Monday, Van Gundy talked inside his office, referring back to a playoff road map most of his players never have traveled. Few coaches prepare better for the postseason. They are estranged now, but Van Gundy learned well his lessons about the human condition under Pat Riley. Van Gundy understands what his players are hearing, and he's the relentless counter, the contrarian, the voice raging against the masses.

"I have this running dialogue with my team about this," Van Gundy said. "We're given the ultimate backhanded compliment. People in the league say, 'They can be dangerous in the playoffs,' meaning, 'They're not good enough to win.' Translated, that's what it means. Nobody says Phoenix can be dangerous, nobody says Miami can be dangerous, nobody says San Antonio can be dangerous. We're labeled with a backhanded compliment that we can be dangerous."

Now, he is sitting up. This gets him going. He lives to take premises and then pummel them.

"Winning a round in the playoffs is not a step forward," Van Gundy declared. "There's no momentum season to season in the NBA. You watched with the Clippers this year. They supposedly had all this momentum after winning a round last year, and they're going to be back in the lottery. To me, this isn't about winning a playoff series so talk show hosts don't say it anymore. It's about building a championship-caliber team."

This Jazz series promises to be a referendum on McGrady, the price of superstardom in the sport. Van Gundy has gone a long way toward regenerating his star's belief in himself, understanding the doubt in McGrady's mind was seeping into his locker room. His is a fragile psyche, and his coach never stopped reconstructing him, regenerating T-Mac into a more complete franchise force.

There isn't a player in these playoffs with so much on the line in the opening series. Perhaps, too, no one else is playing as well as McGrady.

"I always look back on teams I've been on in the past, and I've always been the underdog," he said. "It felt like it was a great accomplishment for me to get to the playoffs. I had the attitude of, 'Whatever happens, happens.' I knew that the teams that I was facing were a lot deeper than my team was. But I don't feel that way this year."

Outside his locker room late Monday night, McGrady sounded assured again, bordering on cocky. Truth be told, the Rockets desperately need it. In so many ways, he's a tortured soul forever fighting with his own demons. This mid-April night did little to remind of December, when T-Mac was tearing down himself as a superstar, a player past his prime.

"This is when players make names for themselves," McGrady said. "That is, if you take your game and your team to the next level."

Van Gundy never worries about Yao anymore. Yes, Yao still is trying to get back to his pre-broken leg form when he truly was a peerless performer in the sport, but he is self-sufficient – a disciplined, galvanized machinery born out of a Chinese National background.

Once and for all, McGrady has had to come to peace with the understanding that his deteriorating back has taken a toll on his body. Still, he is a bright mind, a talent that needs to know he has the freedom to operate, to take chances, to push the limits of a talent that his coach still wants him to believe is largely peerless on the planet.

This is the reason Van Gundy has come to understand the words of his old boss with the Knicks, Don Nelson, who would always say about his old star Tim Hardaway, "You've got to give him his head."

For months as an assistant in 1996, Van Gundy heard Nelson talking about Hardaway this way, as well as different, daring players throughout the sport. "And I never asked him for clarification, like, 'What the [bleep] do you mean by that?' "You've got to give him his head"?"

"So finally when I coached a guy like McGrady, who was intelligent but needed freedom, that's what he meant."

For Van Gundy, he had to let go with McGrady to ultimately pull him in tighter.

"When he comes down and jacks a three, you can't micromanage that shot," Van Gundy said. "He'll take a couple every game that are just Whoa, what is that?. But if you look over the course of the game, the course of the season, he needs that freedom to play at his very best. You can't give that to an unintelligent basketball player; only to a player with a high IQ like McGrady has."

To "give him his head" is to allow for the machinations within that mind, and that's what Van Gundy decided to do with McGrady. He never has regretted it. With Yao back, McGrady has delivered the Rockets to the playoffs and to a Game 1 over the weekend against the Jazz in Houston. Still, Van Gundy didn't stay to watch his superstars dissolve into that long hug on Monday night. He was moving fast, eyes darting for the exit, leaving everyone to celebrate without him.

He still was chasing something else, trying to get Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming to take him there.

"To me, if we win a playoff series, what does that mean if you don't think you're making long-term progress to win a championship?" Van Gundy said. "I don't share the same thing that we have to win this first-round series to get this monkey off the franchise's back, or McGrady's back, or Yao's back. I mean, we should have much bigger goals than that."

For one night, anyway, McGrady and Yao hugged in the middle of the Toyota Center. All at once, they were exhausted and energized, satisfied and unfulfilled. Here come the playoffs now, and expectations suddenly hang over this franchise like an anvil.

It's been a long time.

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