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Rockets move into first in Southwest without fanfare

By Art Garcia, NBA.com
Posted Mar 22 2009 9:48PM

SAN ANTONIO -- So why didn't ABC want this game?

One of the Rockets wondered as much aloud in the locker room before Sunday afternoon's high-stakes showdown with the Spurs. Though the question came wrapped with a good-natured smile, the lack of respect --real or imagined -- has been a season-long inside joke in Houston.

What can't be argued is how these resilient Rockets keep plugging away. It's almost funny that Houston (47-25) has taken hold of the Southwest Division lead and sits second in the Western Conference after rallying past San Antonio 87-85 (Box Score | Recap) in the last regular-season meeting between these instate rivals.

"It's quite astounding, I think, for a lot of us," said Brent Barry, a reserve Rockets guard and Spurs exile. "There's kind of a quiet agreement that we can be a much better team than what we are now. We really feel like we have room to grow.

"That's the opportunity we have in the last 10 or so games before the regular season ends. Maybe we can still make strides in that direction, so come playoff time we're playing our best basketball of the year. We really think that's what our goal should be."

One of those strides is figuring out how to win without total reliance on Yao Ming and Ron Artest. The Rockets struggled throughout the second half to get good shots -- credit San Antonio's defense -- but they continued to fight and improvised with seasoned precision with the game hanging in the balance.

Twice in the last 30 seconds, Yao played the part of 7-foot-6 decoy. A relative non-factor at both ends with 13 points and eight boards, Yao still commands attention. So when the ball found his hands 18 feet from the basket, the Spurs predictably gravitated his way.

In both cases, Yao found a cutting Luis Scola at the basket. The second pass, dropped over charging Spurs forward Kurt Thomas, awarded Scola an easy layup and proved to be the game-winner with 11.2 seconds left.

"Yao found me and got the ball to me," said Scola, a former San Antonio draft pick. "I just saw the ball coming toward me and saw that the basket was open."

The play isn't exactly in Houston's repertoire. Asked how many times Yao-to-Scola has been run this season, Rockets coach Rick Adelman quipped: "Twice. Twice. That's about it." It turned out to be two too many for the Spurs, who weren't without an unsung star of their own.

Reserve swingman Ime Udoka put on his own show for the non-national TV audience with a nine-point blitz early in the fourth. During the run, he had a fastbreak layup with the ball hanging on the rim for an extra drama-building second, a put-back off a Tony Parker airball and a 3-pointer that left Adelman shaking his head in disbelief.

And then there were the lowlights. Tim Duncan scored 23, the most he's had since Feb. 17, but went scoreless in the fourth, missing all four shots. Parker made just 3 of 11 in the final period. Michael Finley took one shot ... in the game.

With the three-point loss to Boston on Thursday, the Spurs (45-24) may be questioning their ability to finish games after dropping two straight at home. San Antonio had led the division outright since Jan. 3 and was second in the West since Jan. 19.

"We're concerned with playing well and closing out games," Spurs guard Roger Mason, Jr. said. "We're concerned about being ready for the playoffs. At the end of the day we want to put ourselves in the best position, but we don't care about standings."

Just as the Rockets don't care about exposure. They were slotted for only 13 national TV dates when the season started and before the plug was pulled 1,500 miles away in favor of two teams (Miami and Detroit) in the bottom half of the East playoff picture.

Eight other teams had more prime-time engagements than Houston, including two -- Phoenix (25) and Dallas (21) -- at the bottom of the West playoff race. The Rockets are the ones in position to host a first-round playoff series.

And they could also fall to seventh by the end of the week. Houston's margin of error is as fragile as the conference is tight. That's why Barry said these games are more important for his new squad than his team of the previous four seasons.

Even as the Spurs lament the chances lost, they have been through this before and come out the other end with jewelry. Adelman alluded to San Antonio's experience, adding that his team isn't there yet.

"We are a good team and I feel that our best basketball is still yet to come," Rockets forward Shane Battier affirmed. "I would say it's surprising that we are in first place in the division at this point in the season. Few people thought we would be here."

And fewer people watched it happen.

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