Andrew Unterberger is in Texas. Pray for his safety. Here’s his first report from the Lone Star State…

Long-ish drive from Phoenix to Houston. I broke it up with some more Roadfood stops and a long-overdue visit to Sonic (they don’t have the corn dogs that I remember from my younger vacation days in Texas, but still good), but if ever the road started to wear on me, it was during this 17-plus-hour stretch. I realize now that that the most annoying thing about driving long periods at once by yourself is that you start to get sick of hearing your own voice in your head, and start to play out entire conversations you may or may not be planning on having with people you know just to add a little variety. Maybe next time I’ll call them up at a rest stop to ask them to sound off on certain matters.

More car fun in the meantime — my first oil change of the trip became a necessity when my engine started making unpleasant grinding noises upon arrival in Phoenix. (My friend REL advised me in Minnesota to get it changed every 3,000 miles, but I laughed him off. I guess you could say he was right, but really it was like at least 7,500 before it became a problem, so suck it, REL.) I also thought I was getting pulled over for my second ridiculous speeding ticket 50 miles or so out of Houston, but it turns out I had a busted headlight. I was let off with just a warning, but about five minutes later, another cop signaled me and I had to go through the same spiel over again. “Is there anything I can do so you guys will stop pulling me over?” I asked, getting antsy looking at my watch. The cop just sort of laughed at me and wished me a sarcastic good luck.

Eventually made it to Houston with about 20 minutes to spare. I had been looking forward to the upcoming Rockets-Pistons game ever since I realized that it represented spurned one-time superstar Tracy McGrady’s Toyota Center homecoming — not exactly LeBron coming back to Cleveland, but likely the closest thing I would get on this trip.

The Stadium: Three things I’ve always noticed about Texas as compared to other places: Everything is bigger, flatter, and less expensive. (And more likely to have free refills of Dr. Pepper. Four things.) Dunno about flatter or less expensive for the Toyota Center — parking cost $20 and a Landshark beer cost $8.50 — but bigger certainly seemed to apply, at least from the upper-deck seats I spent much of the second and third quarters in. At the very least, I haven’t seen so many suites at any of the stadiums I’ve been in so far — you needed to walk through one of them just to get to my lower-level press section, and my, was it glorious. Carving sections, draft beers, and easily the fanciest condiments rack I’ve ever seen at a stadium. Not sure how you go back to plebeian concessions after that.

Not too much notable about the court itself, other than that there was another one of those specially-designated cheering sections that I love so much. The Red Rowdies, they’re called, and luckily for me, I only really noticed their presence two times over the course of the evening — making a huge commotion near the exit after the game as I was walking out, and chanting along to the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” for minutes before tip-off. (Sometimes I wonder if the Jock Jam-ization of that song will absolutely ruin it for future generations, who will know it solely as “That DAAHHHH NA DA DA DA DUHHHHH DUHHHHHHHH” song.) Anyway, credit to the Rockets fans, I guess, for doing enough cheering to drown them out the rest of the time.

Should probably also mention that the Toyota Center was the only other arena I’ve visited so far whose rims were as ridiculously mic’d up as those at my beloved Wells Fargo Center. McGrady got fouled on a layup drive in the first quarter, and I could hear his pained cry of “EYYO!!” like he was announcing it over the PA system.

The Game: Not exactly a marquee matchup, with both teams well below .500 and sinking to the bottom of their respective conferences, though the Pistons obviously have a lot shorter to swim to get back up to the surface in the East. It was pretty even for most of the first half, as a lot of the two teams’ big guns seemed to kind of cancel each other out (I joked on Twitter that Ben Wallace and Chuck Hayes should agree to just sit out and let their teams play four-on-four) and no one had much of a flow going. Then Rip Hamilton got two techs and an ejection protesting a bad call in the second quarter, and the Rockets seemed to go off from there — though I’m not sure how much of a direct cause-and-effect that was, with Rip having scored just six on 3-9 shooting.

Of course, the real reason to watch the game was Tracy McGrady. Not that he was going to swing the game one way or another for the Pistons, averaging just 17 minutes a game off the bench as a back-up point guard, but it was certainly fascinating to see the way he responded to his return to the franchise he had such an up-and-down tenure with. He actually had one of his best games of the season, though unfortunately for Tracy now, that means just 11 points on 3-6 shooting with three dimes, three rebounds and three turnovers. Still, I like T-Mac at the backup point position — his decision and play-making is still solid, and he can be a tough cover for smaller opposing guards. Feel like he could help a contender at the deadline, though I’m not sure what GM is gonna have the balls to roll the dice on him for a post-season run.

Despite Tracy’s above-average effort, the Rockets still pulled away in the fourth quarter, largely thanks to Luis Scola (the only player in the league who can have a “workmanlike” 35 and 12 night) and Kevin Martin (21 points on only eight field goal attempts — no one in the league is better at the “get to the line by throwing my head at your chest” move). Final score: Rockets 97, Pistons 83. Could this really be my fourth win in a row? Hey NBA PR directors, you can start answering my e-mails again, I finally got that East Coast loser stink off me!

The Fans: Four wins in a row, but also four disappointing fan turnouts in a row. It’s rough for a team like the Rockets, that has been a playoff contender the last few years, gives full effort every night, and has a fairly nice stadium to call their home, but I also understand why the Rockets fans aren’t packing house these days. The  most frustrating thing in pro sports is to root for a bad team with no identifiable glaring weaknesses — the kind of team that looks OK going over the roster player-by-player, until you take a step back and realize how unimpressive the big picture is. The Rock Boys have the excuse of injuries, to Aaron Brooks and Yao Ming, but the team limped out of the gate with those guys healthy-ish, and even with them back, you kind of have to wonder how high the ceiling is in Houston.

The fan base’s best showing on Tuesday night came, surprise surprise, in response to T-Mac. Met with a mixture of boos and cheers upon his entrance that was significantly weighted towards the booing, Tracy heard a dusting of disapproval nearly every time he touched the ball, and certainly at the foul line. He did his best to silence the crowd with his solid bench play, but the loudest cheer of the night came when he picked up his fifth foul on a questionable (if somewhat careless) charge call in the fourth quarter. None of the fans I talked to wanted to throw McGrady under the bus for his time in Houston  (“He’s here to drink,” a fan named Chris joked) but it’s clear the Rockets won’t be raising his No. 1 jersey to the rafters anytime soon. (One fan even came wearing said jersey, with the No. 1 crossed out with a big X.)

The fans seemed unsure about the team they were watching this year. “Hit and miss,” a fan named Paul summed up their season to date. “They’ve beaten some good teams, lost to some teams they shouldn’t have.” Norm, sitting a section over, concurred: “They’re not doing what they should be doing .. it’s part injuries, part that they seem to not close out their games.” Optimism was high on Yao’s return, though not unguarded. “There’s been several players who have come back [from his injury],” said Norm. “They’re going to bring him back slowly. He’s a big investment.” (“A dangerous investment,” Fred clarified, sitting next to him. “It’s like rolling a crap shoot.”)

Question of making the playoffs inspired similar tentativeness. “They could, but it’ll be very hard,” said Norm. “Healthy Brooks, healthy Yao … there’s a lot of catch-up to do. But they can hurt any given team on any given night.” (Fred was less convinced: “Gotta be extremely optimistic.”)

Most Popular Jerseys: Appropriately enough, no real consensus — mix of Battier, Scola, Brooks, Yao and others for current, with Battier maybe getting the edge. Probably Hakeem for the throwbacks, though a disappointingly weak retro presence for a team with a fairly rich history like the Rockets.

Also Worth Noting: Hanukkah Night (or something) at the Toyota Center! I was tickled enough when the PA guy played The Maccabeats’ “Candlelight,” a Hanukkah song set to the tune of Matty O favorite Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite” (Sample lyric: “I put my latkes in the air sometimes, saying eyyyyoooo, spin the dreeeeidellll…”), during a time-out. But then the Rockets had to go above and beyond by playing a video montage of various Rockets players attempting to sing the classic Jewish holiday song “I Have a Little Dreidel,” with predictably mixed results. Shane Battier probably gets the spirit award for his rendition, while Luis Scola loses points for giving up half-way through one verse (“I don’t know the words to this one. Can we sing something else?”) I’m just glad that by the end of the video, a couple of the Rock Boys started beatboxing and attempting to rap the song. The NBA has a streak to protect when it comes to beatboxing in holiday-themed videos, you know.

Swag Acquired: Very disappointed not to be able to find a Brad Miller #52 for sale — they were selling Budinger’s replica, ferchrissakes — so instead I went small-scale with a cheap Rockets beaded necklace adjoined by an “R” pendant. At the very least it’ll double as attire for if I ever go to see Rakim live.

2010 Jam of the Day:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=snsx14aGzCA

Curren$y – “Breakfast.” Herb Alpert horns, “NBA 2K10″ references and Karate Kid singalongs, all in just one verse and no chorus. If there’s hip-hop that goes down smoother than this in the year 2010, I really would like to hear it.

One Texas team down, two more coming up. San Antonio vs. Atlanta on Friday, then Dallas-Utah on Saturday. Knew a trip to the Lone Star state was just what this trip needed to really catch its second wind.