“For the rest of eternity, they’ll show that ‘Longest NBA Winning Streaks’ graphic during an NBA game and viewers will say, “’72 Lakers, ’08 Rockets, ’00 Lakers, ’71 Bucks … wait a second, what????”
– Bill Simmons, 2009 NBA Western Conference Preview
With their wins over the Bucks and Raptors that pushed them to 22 consecutive W’s, the Miami Heat have joined some historic company — championship-winning teams, historic assemblages of Hall of Fame talent, teams that get books written about them and special anniversary nights at their home arenas dedicated to them.
They also joined the 2007-08 Houston Rockets, a team that went 55-27, finished as the five seed in the Western Conference, then lost to the Utah Jazz in six games in the first round of the playoffs.
It’s not really possible to win 22 consecutive games and still fly under the radar, but if it was, the 2008 Rockets would have done it. Even at the time, you wondered why people weren’t making a big deal out of the streak, even though you pretty much understood why — at no point during their historic streak did it really seem like the Rockets were a Finals contender, the best team in the league or even the best team in the West, where the Lakers were surging after the league-rocking Pau Gasol trade, the Spurs were mounting a title defense for the fourth time in nine years and even the Hornets were congealing around their MVP-candidate point guard and starting to look like a real threat. The Rockets were a cute distraction, but few saw them as championship material, especially after they lost one of their core players to a mid-season injury.
Yet the ’08 Rockets did something that, up until last night, only one other team in NBA history had managed to achieve. How’d they do it? Well, in essence, they were a team that came together around a superstar in his last stretch of near-dominance, with role players both veteran and inexperienced stepping up around him, and a relatively soft mid-season schedule (15 of the 22 games were at home, and 12 against non-playoff teams) that allowed momentum to build, before the inevitable regression to the mean reared its ugly head.
Since we probably haven’t thought much about them in the last five years before the Heat went supernova, and we might not have cause to think about them again for sometimes afterwards, I figured a little retrospect was in order. Here are 10 things you may or may not remember about that weird-ass Rockets team and their weird-ass 22-game winning streak.
1. They went 24-20 before the streak began.
The Rockets went all of 2007 outside of the playoff picture in their first season under new head coach Rick Adelman, with incumbent Jeff Van Gundy having been canned in the offseason, after losing in the first round for the third time in his four seasons as head coach (this time after having been up 3-2). The team ended ’07 with a 15-16 record, but started to find a groove in early January, ironically with nominal franchise player Tracy McGrady out with injury, as the team banged out a five game win streak (with other nominal franchise player Yao Ming averaging a 26 and eight on 58 percent shooting). They then grabbed another four straight a few games later (this time with T-Mac back in tow), before achieving liftoff, winning against the Warriors on Jan. 29th and not losing again until March 18th.
2. The season — and the streak especially — was Tracy McGrady’s last real stretch as an NBA impact player.
Tracy’s days as a scoring champ and All-NBA caliber player were basically behind him by ’07-08 — his PPG, RPG, 3PT%, FT% and PER for the season were all the lowest he’d posted since he left Toronto at the turn of the century. All that said, he was still T-Mac, averaging a 21-5-5, making All-NBA third team and finishing top 10 in MVP voting. After missing about 15 games around the turn of the year with a knee injury, he played some of his best ball of the season (22/6/5, 43 percent) over the stretch, including two particularly impressive outings against the Hornets, in which he averaged 38-8-5 as the Rockets beat one of the West’s top three teams twice by a combined 30 points.
Unfortunately (and somewhat unbelievably), that was about it for T-Mac. The Rockets lost in the first round, and Tracy’s play, while actually quite fine (27/7/8 on 43 percent shooting), failed to transcend, and if you remember one thing about him from the series, it was probably his joking (but bitter and self-pitying) “It’s My Fault” speech to media after a Game Two loss, which reflected the decade’s worth of playoff and injury frustrations he’d experienced in six (soon to be seven) straight first-round losses with the Magic and Rockets. Tracy would only play in 35 games the next season, and not all that well by his standards, before going down with further knee issues, as the Rockets finally won a playoff series in his absence. He was traded to the Knicks the next season in a three-team deal for Kevin Martin, and his days as a star were officially over.
3. Yao Ming got hurt halfway through the streak, and missed the rest of the season.
When people look back at the Houston Rockets’ late-’00s run and wonder how a team with two players as dominant as Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady on the same roster for over a half-decade only made it out of the first round once, they’ll have to be reminded of the many times the two franchise talents passed each other on the way on and off the IR. Yao was doing some serious balling during the first 12 games of the Rockets’ winning streak, averaging 22 and 11 on 53 percent shooting, before he went down with a stress fracture in his left foot and was ruled out for the rest of the season.
The next year, not only did T-Mac miss the playoffs, but Yao also broke his foot in the second round against the Lakers, an injury the perennial All-Star never really recovered from. The Ming/McGrady Rockets’ enduring legacy was cemented as being one of the NBA’s great stories of sadly unrealized greatness.
4. Filling the void left by Yao was the last stand of Dikembe Mutombo.
Once a perennial All-Star himself, Deke had long settled into the role-player stage of his career by the ’07-’08 season, only playing double-digit minutes in four of the first 56 games of the Rockets’ season, and only racking up four blocks total over those games. With the injury to Yao, however, Mutombo was pressed into starting duty, and he proved he hadn’t totally lost his touch for rejection, swatting four shots in his first start alone and racking up four or more blocks in three other games over the remainder of the streak. Deke’s re-emergence gave the team a spark that helped carry them over the final 10 wins of the streak, and resulted in this classic mid-season news clip of Dike’s teammates taking a crack at his singular croak:
Mutombo would start for the rest of the season and the playoffs, but at age 41, was obviously nearing his last legs. He played in just nine games the next regular season before injuring his knee against the Blazers in the playoffs, announcing his retirement almost immediately afterwards.
5. Two rookies (Luis Scola and Carl Landry) played a large part in the team’s run.
As has been typical of the Daryl Morey-assembled Rockets, neither Scola nor Landry arrived in Houston amidst a great deal of hype or expectation. Scola was a second-round pick of the Spurs a half-decade before that the Rockets pried away from San Antonio with a future second round pick (who ended up being point guard Nando de Colo). Landry was also a heisted second-rounder, coming from the Sonics with the 31st overall pick in exchange for cash and a future second-rounder.
Both would have impressive impact as rookies, with Scola’s insertion into the starting lineup a game before the team’s streak began a big catalyst in the Rockets’ success, as Scola averaged 12 and 7 on 55 percent shooting, making for a lethal froncourt tandem with Yao. Backing him up off the bench was Landry, who started getting regular minutes in January, and began to make a real difference following Yao’s late-February injury, averaging 14 and five on insane 68 percent shooting in the five games after the big man’s departure.
“That’s My Team,” a gem of a home-team anthem released by rapper Mr. Luke (not to be confused with the medically certified Luke) in the midst of the winning streak, memorably declared both players to be Rookie of the Year. Not quite, but both did make All-Rookie at year’s end with Scola garnering first team honors, and Landry second.
6. The team’s big mid-season trade was a three-team deal for Bobby Jackson.
And if that name doesn’t give you acid flashbacks, the name of the guy he was traded for almost certainly will: Bonzi Wells, on his way to New Orleans and to be out of the league altogether by summertime. Bobby Jackson was hardly the same player in ’07-’08 that he was for the contending Kings a half-decade earlier, when he won Sixth Man of the Year. But he gave the Rockets a badly-needed deep threat to stretch the floor for T-Mac and Yao (though Jackson would only get to play one game with the latter before his season-ending injury), and filled the role decently, shooting 42 percent overall and 34 percent from deep, before going totally cold in the playoffs, hitting on just 5 of his 24 treys against the Jazz. Bobby went for round two with the Kings the next season and washed out of the league shortly after.
7. The streak was saved in Game Eight with a game-winning three by Steve Novak.
The Marquette grad and eventual MSG fan favorite only did one thing of note during his 35 games (averaging just eight minutes and four points a game) with the Rockets in ’07-’08, but it was a big ‘un. Facing the Kings in Houston with a seven-game winning streak on the line, the Rockets were down one with just six seconds to go, when Tracy McGrady drove the lane and kicked out to a wide-open Steve Novak beyond the arc:
I remember watching this on SportsCenter that night and wondering what 90 percent of America (including a good deal of Rockets fans) was probably also wondering: “WHO???”
Novak was scarcely heard from again until resurfacing in New York to lead the league in three-point shooting last season, but he’ll probably be remembered forever by Rockets fans for that one shot. Meanwhile, somewhat incredibly, the Rockets did not play a single other one-possession game over the rest of the 22-game stretch. The only really close games they played in over the entire streak were the first two, a four-point win against the Warriors and a three-point win over the Pacers. After the Kings win, no victory came by fewer than eight points.
8. One key member of this year’s Heat team was also a fixture on the ’08 Rockets.
That would, of course, be Shane “All I Do Is Win” Battier, who the Rockets traded a top 10 pick (Rudy Gay) for in 2006 — a trade that may as well be the defining move of the Advanced Stats movement. Battier was his typical non-box-score-stuffing self for the ’08 Rockets, averaging nine points and five rebounds on 43 percent shooting, though he still rated so highly on both sides of the ball that he still was worth 8.2 wins for the season according to Basketball-Reference, landing just barely behind Yao for the highest on the team.
Battier’s most memorable performance during the streak probably came in its final game, against the Lakers, when he helped bother Kobe into an 11-33 shooting night, a performance spotlighted in Michael Lewis’ famed profile of Battier (“The No-Stats All-Star“) in early 2009.
9. The Rockets beat LeBron twice over the course of the streak.
Not due to any real deficiency in LeBron’s game, mind you. In one of the two contests, he scored 32 with seven boards and six dimes, and in the other, he scored 26 and notched a triple-double with 13 boards and 11 assists. But despite making the Finals the year before, the Cavaliers team that LeBron was on that season was one of his weakest — especially before the three-team mid-season blockbuster deal that would ship out Drew Gooden and Larry Hughes in return for Ben Wallace, Delonte West and Wally Szczerbiak. No teammate of his scored more than 16 in either game, and Cleveland averaged 81 points as a team over the two contests.
It’s doubtful that LeBron will use the memory of the two losses as extra motivation for extending the Heat’s streak to 23 tonight — he probably couldn’t name more than three guys who were even on that Cavs team with him — but an interesting reminder of how far he’s come, nonetheless.
10. The Celtics ended the streak at 22 games and the Rockets lost four of their next seven afterwards.
No shame in getting beaten by the best, and it was fair enough that the ’08 Celts — who would end up delivering Boston its first championship in 22 years a few months later — would be the team to end the Rockets’ incredible run. Less easily understood was what happened after. After going about seven weeks without losing, the Rockets would proceed to lose five times in the space of two weeks, including back-to-back nights of scoring under 75 points against the C’s and Hornets, and a revenge loss against the lottery-bound Kings. An emotional let up after the streak’s end, perhaps, or just the law of averages returning the Rockets to earth a little over-dramatically, but at seasons’ end Houston would end up with only the fourth-best record in the West.
Worth pointing out, as many no doubt already have (and likely soon will), that it is the Celtics whom the 22-straight-winning Heat face tonight, with another chance to put a halt to history, and this time against a hated conference rival. You can bet the ’08 Rockets will be watching and hoping (with the possible exception of Battier) that they do — if for no other reason than so we’ll have reason again to talk about them at length when a team approaches 22 straight wins some years down the road.
Oh, and I didn’t have anywhere to put this season-highlight video of Rafer Alston kissing Carl Landry after making a big block in the ’08 post-season — and Landry’s incredulous reaction — but it seems as good a note as any to end our remembrance on: