HOUSTON – Tracy McGrady stepped to the free-throw line late Sunday afternoon and the chant grew loud, filling the Toyota Center from the floor to the rafters.
M-V-P! M-V-P! M-V-P!
Not on Sunday. Not in this season. These Houston Rockets haven't streaked into first place in the Western Conference because of one player or even two, and their 22nd consecutive victory – a 104-92 thumping of the Los Angeles Lakers – provided the most convincing evidence yet.
With Yao Ming watching from home, McGrady might as well have been stretched out on his own couch for the first three quarters. He didn't make his first shot until more than nine minutes into the second half. At halftime, he told an ABC reporter he felt tired.
What happened next said a lot about McGrady's teammates and why it's foolish to dismiss their streak as a fluke. With Kobe Bryant driving for a layup to pull the Lakers within two with less than 10 seconds left in the third quarter, Rafer Alston rushed the ball upcourt, dribbled between his legs, stepped back and coolly drilled his seventh 3-pointer of the game.
Alston would finish with eight 3-pointers and a career-best 31 points. The Rockets' media relations staff sent him to the podium after the game, but they should have also brought a chair for Shane Battier. Or Bobby Jackson.
Jackson, a deadline-day trade pickup from New Orleans, scored 19 points off the bench and drove the two biggest daggers into the Lakers, burying a 3-pointer to push the Rockets' lead to five midway through the fourth quarter and then doubling that advantage four minutes later with another 24-foot rainbow. Battier, meanwhile, hounded Bryant into 11-of-33 shooting, allowing Houston to often get away without doubling the Lakers star.
If anyone deserved to be tired it was Battier. Rockets coach Rick Adelman told him to prepare to be on the court whenever Bryant was in the game.
Said Battier: "I told him, 'Thanks, your Christmas present is in the mail as well.' "
Battier played more than 46 minutes, nearly equaling the 47 Bryant logged. Not surprisingly, he was the last Rocket out the shower, finally slumping into a chair in front of his locker almost 45 minutes after the final horn sounded.
"Chasing that guy around," Battier said, "you want a Budweiser or two after the game because you earned it."
On Sunday, Battier deserved the whole six-pack. Bryant scored 24 points, just five in the fourth quarter when he missed eight of his 10 shots. He also made only four trips to the free-throw line, less than half his average.
Battier, Lakers coach Phil Jackson said, "kept him off his rhythm all game."
Bryant said his shot felt "flat" and Jackson thought he looked tired for the last five or so minutes of the final quarter. There was a reason for that. Pau Gasol missed the game with a sprained left ankle and Lamar Odom (17 points, 11 rebounds) was one of the few remaining Lakers to provide any type of support.
The Lakers don't think this will be a long-term problem. They might go on to lose the remaining two games of their trip in Dallas and Utah without Gasol, but they hope to have him back by the end of the week. Still, they would be wise to not attribute all of their struggles to their starting center's absence. Just as in their victory over Dallas two weeks earlier, too many of the Lakers seemed too eager to have Bryant rescue them once the pressure built.
The Rockets used to do the same with McGrady. But as he continued to miss games with a balky back and other injuries, and Yao was forced to the sideline for large chunks of the past two seasons, the Rockets learned something: how to play without them.
Houston, coincidentally, started to turn around this season after McGrady went on the inactive list in late December because of a sore knee. McGrady bristled when it was suggested the Rockets were better without him, which was understandable. They weren't. Houston improved because Adelman expanded the roles of Carl Landry, Luis Scola and Aaron Brooks and diminished those of Bonzi Wells and Mike James.
Nor are the Rockets a better team now without Yao. Their only remaining interior offense is McGrady's post-ups, making them prone to long scoring droughts. In Friday's victory over Charlotte they went more than 10 minutes without a point. On Sunday they missed their first 12 shots of the third quarter and went scoreless for more than six minutes, allowing the Lakers to whittle a 15-point deficit down to five.
Alston finally slowed the Lakers' run with a 3-pointer.
"I thought if there was going to be anybody to turn this thing around," Alston said, "it was me."
Alston said the Lakers "stayed glued" to McGrady, and that was partially true: On more than one pick-and-roll they blitzed him with two defenders. But Los Angeles' defense was nothing McGrady hadn't seen before and yet he missed his first nine shots and went into the locker room at halftime with three assists, one rebound and no points.
"I was in awe of (Alston)," McGrady said. "You kind of get caught up in the moment and you kind of get out of your game a little bit because the other guy is playing so well. I was one of those guys tonight."
McGrady played his best when it mattered most, hitting three clutch jump shots in the fourth quarter. But he gave another reason for his early struggles that should concern the Rockets: He was tired. McGrady did play all 48 minutes Friday against the Bobcats, but this is mid-March. What's he going to feel like in May if he actually wins a playoff series?
"I thought Tracy had as poor a game as he's had all season," Phil Jackson said, "and I think that shows how good their team really is."
"There wasn't a time when we wavered from what was successful," Battier said. "It's team basketball."
So Battier chased Bryant. Scola and Hayes banged inside. Alston threw in one 3-pointer after another. Bobby Jackson made his own big shots, and yet the chant grew when McGrady stepped to the foul line.
On Sunday there were plenty of them.