T-Mac will be missed in this round
"I'm not just happy to get out of the first round. That's not our goal here."
-- Ron Artest
Inside the Toyota Center on Thursday night, they were chanting "Beat L.A." and holding signs that said "In Ron We Trust." For 12 years, the city and the team's fans have been asking for this. Some even praying for it. Round 2. Basketball in May is returning to Houston for the first time since 1997. Now, they get the Lakers.
Be careful what you pray for.
Step 1 in the quest for the ring is done. The team I predicted would walk away with the NBA championship at the beginning of the season is now about to walk into a series with the most feared team in the Western Conference and the most dangerous player. All season long, whenever they've faced each other, the Kobe vs. Ron-Ron Show has been a one-sided affair. In November, Bryant posted 23 points to Artest's eight in a 29-point Lakers victory. In January, Bryant put up 33 points, seven rebounds and four assists in a 105-100 Lakers win (Artest missed the game with an ankle injury). Then in March, a classic and much-hyped verbal battle between the two ended with Kobe saying -- after scoring 18 of his 37 in the fourth quarter -- "It wasn't much of a battle, I kicked his [butt] tonight." Artest, meanwhile, managed only 11 points. two rebounds and six turnovers. And in a game in April when Ron-Ron did show up (Artest outscored Bryant 21-20), the Lakers still won by 12.
These four games are now haunting the city of Houston.
Then the Rockets' savior (yes, Artest!) had the nerve to say in a TNT interview that Portland's Brandon Roy -- not Kobe Bryant! -- was the best player he'd ever played against. (With the exception of this guy he grew up with at the Queensbridge housing complex in Queens, N.Y., who went to jail when he was 15 or 16 years old.) From a Rockets perspective, you've gotta be either worried or in love.
The fact that the Rockets have lived to see the second round is a pleasant surprise. Injuries, trades and more injuries have made them a question mark all season long. The dark cloud of another likely first-round exit, another repeat of seasons past, has lurked throughout the season in the newspapers, on sports radio and in the locker room. Always there.
But Ron-Ron? He's like Manny in L.A. It's because of him that the last 12 seasons are now a fading memory. A whole 'nother set of beliefs has finally crept into the Rockets franchise. The time has finally come to put the past behind them.
The question is, at what cost will that come?
"I think we have become immune to public perception and public expectation of us. We've been counted out so many times the past couple years. We have expectations for ourselves, and those are the expectations we care about."
-- Shane Battier
Since the playoffs began, I've been stalked by two questions: "Are the Bulls going to beat the Celtics?" and "Do you still think the Rockets are going to win it all?"
When I wrote at the beginning of the season that the Rockets were going to win this season's chip, I specifically included the words "if healthy." I did that for a reason.
I had a feeling.
Getting to play in the second round is one thing. Going beyond it is something totally different. In the midst of doing what was necessary to keep Houston from going on a citywide suicide watch, a problem has arisen. The T-Mac problem.
The Rockets got here without Tracy McGrady. The perception remains that this team seemed to gel without McGrady. And the numbers -- the Rockets' record after McGrady went down was 26-9, including the first-round defeat of the Trail Blazers -- seem to reflect that. In fact, it seemed as though the minute the Rockets learned T-Mac was gone for the rest of the season, a huge relief washed over them and everyone fell into their roles on offense and defense perfectly. They stopped looking over their shoulders, and stopped looking for excuses. The team started playing the way it was capable of playing.
And McGrady didn't help his cause by saying in a recent interview that he felt the Lakers -- not his Rockets! -- were going to win the NBA championship. That's a comment that, even if it proves prophetic, still leaves a sour taste in the mouth of a city craving to get back its Clutch City rep.
But if the Rockets, or anyone else, think they are a better team without McGrady, then a visit to the Alfred Adler School might be needed. There is a difference between playing better and being better. In a series against a team like the Trail Blazers -- a young team low on experience that hasn't established an identity yet -- the Rockets can get by without him. But against the Lakers, or even the Nuggets, Tracy McGrady is more necessary to the Rockets than Jim Cramer is to CNBC.
The Rockets don't have a true closer, and at times they are incapable of getting the ball to Yao Ming when the game is on the line. Facing the Lakers without McGrady, T-Mac's worth will be proven. Now is the time when the Rockets will understand his true value.
Is it time to concede and back off the comments I wrote at the beginning of this journey? Never. But as Flavor Flav once said, "You can't stop reality from being real."
"For us, it was never part of our decision-making, and I don't think it weighed on the players. It is a very different group. But I do think now that we won't have stories about it -- the perception of the team nationally and in town [changes]. That has an indirect positive. People won't write about it, so I think it is maybe good for [Rockets president] Tad Brown and the ticket sales. I do think this is a very different team from the ones that had trouble in the past. Everyone talks about our struggles to get out of the first round. No one talks about the fact we were in the playoffs consistently."
-- Rockets GM Daryl Morey
A headline in the Houston Chronicle on Sunday, looking ahead to Monday night's Game 1 of the Western Conference semis, read: "Rockets know they can meet challenge."
There seems to be some confidence in Houston, even if many fans are worried the Rockets could get swept simply because of how they played against the Lakers during the regular season. But Hubie Brown said it best during the broadcast of the Nuggets-Mavericks game Sunday: "Houston has to play perfect basketball." For four out of the next seven games, the question is, "Can the Rockets do that?"
There is a stat that stands as tall as Yao in the search for "perfection." The Rockets' record when Yao scores more than 20 points: 32-4. And here's the perfection: The Rockets are 7-0 when Yao scores more than 30. Without McGrady, you'd think that Yao, even with Andrew Bynum defending against him, would be able to put up those numbers. But against the Lakers this season -- all games without McGrady -- Yao averaged only 15.8 points. Rockets coach Rick Adelman must stress getting Yao the touches necessary for him to average 30 or more.
So now the Rockets exist in new territory, a new place. A place they needed to be -- more than the Hawks, who had not been out of the first round in 10 years, or the Nuggets, who had not been in for 15 years.
But to get to the next new place -- to get out of the second round, against a team that has been driven all season long to avenge a loss in the Finals last season -- the Rockets may need something or someone they have no chance of getting.
Where's Artest's boy from Queensbridge?
Scoop Jackson is a columnist for ESPN.com.