HOUSTON – Dikembe Mutombo raised his endless arms above the rim one last time Friday then paused for flesh to find leather. A half-second later, he was sending the ball and Emeka Okafor hurtling back toward the court.
As the roar of the crowd fell upon his shoulders, Mutombo turned and delivered another famous wag of his right index finger.
Not tonight, Mutombo seemed to be saying. Not tonight.
The Houston Rockets carried their remarkable winning streak through another evening, extending it to 21 games Friday with a tough 89-80 victory over the Charlotte Bobcats. Only one other team in the NBA has ever strung together more wins, and that was the Los Angeles Lakers of 36 years ago.
"It's the greatest thing I've ever been around," Rockets coach Rick Adelman said.
Or, as Tracy McGrady succinctly put it, "This is history."
Maybe Kobe Bryant exposes the Rockets when he comes to town Sunday. Maybe Kevin Garnett does the same when he visits two days later. Or maybe McGrady again labors under his personal playoff burden and can't carry his team out of the first round.
But for one day, at least, there should be no denying these Rockets their moment. Instead of talking about what they won't do, perhaps we should celebrate what they've already accomplished.
Twenty-one in a row? Seven weeks ago, Houston began this run while stuck in 10th place in the fiercest conference race the league has seen in years. They'll awake Saturday morning holding a share of first.
"Maybe we're the luckiest team in the history of NBA basketball," Rockets forward Shane Battier said. "But if that's our distinction, it's fine by us."
Lucky is one of the nicer descriptions the Rockets have heard over the past few weeks, and they had a hard time denying it Friday when the stars continued to align for them over the NBA cosmos. Pau Gasol of the Lakers limped off the court in New Orleans with an ankle sprain. Three quarters later, the Hornets' David West did the same. Half a country away in Boston, the Celtics' Ray Allen couldn't finish the game because of a heel injury.
The Rockets' next three opponents: Lakers, Celtics and Hornets.
Houston also faced Dallas last week when Dirk Nowitzki was shelved by a suspension, but that tells only half the story. The Rockets won that night as they did Friday: with Yao Ming watching from his couch.
Houston's past nine victories have come without Yao, and that, too, has been fuel for the team's critics. How can the Rockets, regardless of how many games they win now, ever be legitimate championship contenders without their best player? Just last week, one rival West coach praised the Rockets for how well they've played. But when the playoffs begin? "They're not going anywhere," he said. "Not without the big guy."
Houston provided plenty of evidence to support that theory against the Bobcats. Without the big guy to throw the ball to, they hoisted 19 three-pointers in the first half. They made just four and went nearly an entire quarter – 10 minutes, 11 seconds – without scoring a single point.
Do the same against the Lakers (with or without Pau) on Sunday, and Houston's streak will end. Adelman admitted as much. Without Yao to settle their offense, the Rockets need more movement. More than ever, they must attack.
Adelman also understands why so many people rushed to proclaim Houston dead 18 days ago after hearing Yao would miss the rest of the season. He had his own doubts.
"I was concerned only in that these guys," he said, "had to understand we still had a nice streak going, we were playing at home and we could still win."
The Rockets have continued to do that, their confidence steadily building along the way. They will discover a lot more about themselves over the next week. After playing host to the Lakers and Celtics, the Rockets travel to New Orleans, Golden State and Phoenix.
"Now," McGrady said, "the true test comes."
McGrady, as expected, has done most of Houston's heavy lifting; on Friday he scored 30 points, pulled down seven rebounds and didn't come off the court until the final horn. But Adelman also has seemingly pulled a new supporting hero off his bench every night. Luis Scola. Carl Landry. Steve Novak. Mutombo.
Against the Bobcats, Adelman unearthed the Rockets' most surprising find. When Landry went down with his own knee injury, team officials needed a replacement, so they plucked Michael Harris – a rookie who was one of Houston's final training-camp cuts – out of China. Four days into his NBA career, Harris hustled and scrapped his way into 10 fourth-quarter points to close out the Rockets' 21st consecutive win.
"He has a toughness you just can't measure," Adelman said.
That's proved true of a lot of these Rockets. On Friday they shot poorly, found themselves down 13 and fought their way back into the game. Yes, they beat an inferior opponent. Yes, their schedule hasn't been the toughest. But too many things can go wrong in a single game, let alone seven weeks, to cause a team to lose, and yet the Rockets haven't.
As for momentum: Just ask the Colorado Rockies what a late-season streak can do.
"My childrens and maybe my grandchildrens … they can read this thing in the history books and say there was a team in Houston that won as many games more than 20," Mutombo said. "That's what I'm happy about: being part of history."
So let Mutombo wag his finger. Let these Rockets have their moment.
Twenty-one in a row?
No one says it has to end there.