That Old, Familiar Feeling

Rockets' latest win hints at growing belief that big things could be on the horizon
by Jason Friedman Writer/Reporter

HOUSTON - Not all win streaks are created equal. They vary in length and significance, of course, but also in cause and effect. Some runs are largely a byproduct of schedule while others offer a glimpse at a club collectively catching fire at just the right time.

The best of the bunch do possess a common thread, however; that certain something that’s difficult to define but one that represents the quintessential ‘you know it when you see it’ element. They are borne of teamwork, trust and resilience, chemistry, heart and clutch play. Those are the streaks that stand out. Those are the stretches so special as to make one remember that, no matter what anyone may tell you to the contrary, a certain sort of magic still exists in the sports world today.

In Houston the gold standard for such streaks will likely forever be the 22-gamer that captured the city’s heart during the 2007-08 season. Mention the name Novak and every true Rockets fan will immediately smile ear-to-ear while recalling his last-second 3 that sunk Sacramento. Bring up Yao Ming and an indescribable mix of sadness and exhilaration will spring to mind amid the ensuing reflections of his greatness, his sickeningly unfair and ill-timed injury, and the inspiring circle-the-wagons approach the Rockets relied upon while rolling off another 10 straight wins after he went down.

The list of unforgettable moments and players from that period could stretch from one end of Toyota Center to the other: T-Mac’s dunk and kick for the camera; Rafer Alston’s 3-pt barrage; Battier, Scola, Landry, Hayes and on and on it goes. But what made that run so memorable and downright beautiful was that it was about so much more than any one individual; the essence of that streak existed in the fact that it was all about the team.

This year’s version of the Rockets obviously has a long way to go in its effort to create similarly long lasting memories, to say nothing of any attempts at a winning streak of such historic length. Houston’s modest five-game run certainly isn’t going to send anyone scrambling in an effort to rewrite the club’s record books anytime soon. But what is increasingly clear is that this squad has uncovered something that demands attention, both when contemplating its immediate present and the future that lies upon the horizon. The Rockets have the look of a team that has tapped into basketball’s true source, that sacred, secretive place from which magic flows and unforgettable moments are born. And perhaps at no time during this current run was that made more abundantly clear than it was over the course of Houston’s improbable, far-fetched and utterly fantastic 118-113 overtime win over the Blazers.

For nearly three-and-a-half quarters Sunday night, the Rockets appeared dead in the water. Shots weren’t falling, defensive rebounds were going unclaimed, seemingly every loose ball eluded them, and Portland just plain played better. The list of things the Rockets required to get back in the game read like a ‘tl;dr’ post on your favorite message board. Forget reality, they needed magic.

And then James Harden happened.

At this point it is fairly understood that anytime an NBA player finds himself on a list of two that includes Michael Jordan, some rare, powerful form of hoops wizardry has just taken place. And such a description certainly fits the bill upon discovering that, since the ’85-’86 season, only Harden and His Airness have delivered games in which they’ve compiled at least 41-points, 10-rebounds, six-assists and six-steals in a single contest. Of course, the historical footnote is nice and all, but what really resonates is the way in which Harden went about rescuing his team from seemingly certain defeat. Houston’s hirsute All-Star tugged on his signature beard and went straight up Merlin on the suddenly staggering Trailblazers, scoring 17 points in the fourth quarter, including a 3-point thunderbolt with eight seconds left that forced an overtime period the Rockets would ultimately own.

And while Harden’s play will deservedly steal all the headlines and lead every highlight reel, the reality is Houston doesn’t sniff victory Sunday if not for the sizable efforts of Jeremy Lin, Dwight Howard, Pat Beverley and Chandler Parsons. Credit, too, must go to Houston head coach Kevin McHale and his staff for making the bold decision to go small – on a night when the Rockets were getting creamed on the boards, no less. That tactic created the necessary space for Houston to finally get its offense on track, and it proved absolutely vital in the success Lin enjoyed in the fourth quarter and overtime.

In fact, it is the revival of Jeremy Lin that further speaks to the singular place the Rockets have managed to reach as a team. Amid the swirls of external doubt that arose during his post All-Star break struggles, the trust in Lin's ability never wavered within the walls of Houston’s locker room. He had risen above rough patches before, and he would find the wherewithal to do so again. Sunday’s showing didn’t convince his teammates of anything they didn’t already know; it simply confirmed what they had believed all along.

“He's been struggling a little bit but we've all believed in him throughout this whole season,” Chandler Parsons said in the wake of Lin’s 26-point performance. “He came up huge and made some big, big plays tonight. James was unbelievable. Everybody chipped in and did their own thing. It was just an all around team win with nothing that was going our way.”

Superstars shining. Role players rising to the occasion. Dominant wins interspersed with the occasional victory snatched from the jaws of defeat. Resilience. Trust. Cohesion. Sound familiar? That’s frequently the formula for any NBA team that goes on a prolonged tear, and the Rockets have followed it to the letter while racking up 15 wins in their last 17 games and compiling the league’s best record in 2014.

Losses to the Warriors and Clippers during that stretch stand in the way of any direct comparisons to the best run in franchise history, but some of the feelings generated and magic currently being conjured are reminiscent in a manner that’s getting harder to ignore. The buzz inside Toyota Center this past week during the Rockets’ most recent home wins over Miami, Indiana and, now, Portland offer proof positive of that. Put simply, there’s an electricity inside this building that hasn’t existed in the regular season since March of 2008. It crackles, sparks and makes one’s hair stand on end. Physics might not be able to explain the phenomenon. But chemistry most certainly can.

“They’re bonding as a group and you can feel it,” said McHale. “That’s what makes sports special when you get around guys that are bonding and fighting together. That’s why you’re in the business. That’s the hook for all of us guys who have been doing it for many, many years is that belief that together we can get something accomplished.”

That is the power that fuels fans, too. No, not all win streaks are created equal. Five does not trump 22. But the energy currently pulsating through a team and its city – that is beginning to feel very familiar, indeed. As are the growing number of hints that something much greater than a streak, much greater by far, potentially exists on the fast approaching horizon.

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