The losses of Tracy McGrady and Ron Artest figured to make an already frustrating season that much more of a challenge for the Houston Rockets. Instead, the team is playing some of its best basketball without two of its stars.
The short-handed but surging Rockets go for their seventh win in eight games Friday night when they visit the Indiana Pacers.
Houston (27-16) announced Jan. 12 that McGrady will miss two weeks with a sore left knee that has bothered him since he underwent minor surgery in May. Soon after, the Rockets said they were shutting down Artest for at least a week so he could rest a sprained right ankle.
McGrady and Artest practiced Thursday, leaving coach Rick Adelman believing both would return soon even though he couldn't set a timetable. McGrady will not play Friday but there's a chance Artest could after being cleared to go full speed.
The injuries have left the Rockets without their top scoring threats behind Yao Ming, but the team hasn't suffered much without them. Houston's won six of its last seven, though McGrady and Artest were available for only one game apiece in that stretch.
"You are looking at a locker room full of 10 guys right now who are playing well, and we are doing a really good job and really appreciate the support of our crowd," reserve guard Brent Barry told the Rockets' official Web site after a 108-99 home win over Utah on Wednesday night.
"We've really done some good things and grown up during these last six or seven ball games."
Houston has been remarkably efficient offensively during that stretch. The Rockets rank near the bottom of the league in field-goal percentage at 44.5, but they've shot 49.0 percent over their last seven games.
"The way we're moving the ball around, we can't afford to go back to our old offense of sit-and-watch, and isolation," forward Shane Battier said. "It's just not as good. We're much better when we move the ball and play like this."
Adelman agreed after watching his team record 21 assists on 35 field goals in Wednesday's victory. Houston made 11 of its 24 3-point attempts and had four players score at least 19 points.
"We have a nice balance going to Yao, and pick-and-rolls and ball movement," Adelman said. "We had some good open looks that we missed tonight, but I think this team has made some pretty good strides in the last two weeks."
Pacers forward Danny Granger has also made significant strides this season. He's near the top of the league with 26.2 points per game and 104 3-pointers, and appears to be on his way to his first All-Star appearance.
The fourth-year forward, however, was 5-for-15 from the field in a 99-81 road loss to San Antonio on Tuesday night. Indiana (15-27) trailed by as many as 29 in suffering its fifth loss in seven games.
"We have work to do to get better as a team," said Granger, shooting 35.4 percent (29-for-82) over his last four games. "As a team, we have to look to the next game and just learn from tonight."
Granger was held to 16 points and 6-for-20 shooting in the Pacers' first meeting with the Rockets on Nov. 26. However, he tipped in his own miss with 13 seconds remaining to cap Indiana's comeback from a 10-point, fourth-quarter deficit in the 91-90 win in Houston.
The Pacers lost both games against the Rockets last season and haven't swept the season series since 2001-02.