Even the Dream applauded this one.
With Hakeem Olajuwon cheering from a courtside seat, the Houston Rockets extended their improbable winning streak to 22 games and took over first place in the Western Conference on Sunday with a 104-92 win over the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Rockets sit alone in the No. — spot in the West, something not even Olajuwon's best Houston teams from the 1990s achieved this late in a season.
"I'm sure you'd like to have it 16 games from now," said Houston coach Rick Adelman, "but I think having it now, I'd rather be there than 10th. We've earned our way there and worked our way there."
Houston kept alive the second-longest win streak in NBA history despite a miserable game from Tracy McGrady, who scored only 11 points on 4-for-16 shooting.
McGrady has carried the offense since Yao Ming was lost to a foot injury on Feb. 26. On Sunday, it was everyone else's turn to help him.
Rafer Alston scored 31 points and hit eight 3-pointers, both career highs, and Shane Battier added 14 points and played solid defense on Kobe Bryant. Backup point guard Bobby Jackson added 19 points and Luis Scola had 13 points and 11 rebounds.
"There wasn't a time where we wavered from successful team basketball," Battier said. "Different guys hit shots and we tightened the reins on defense."
Bryant scored 24 points for the Lakers and smothered McGrady on defense. But Bryant went 11-for-33 from the field, trying to compensate for the loss of Pau Gasol, who's out indefinitely with a sprained ankle.
"Teams obviously can crowd the lane and go back to playing the type of defense against us that we've seen in the past," Bryant said. "What we have to do is focus on the defensive end a lot more. And I'll obviously have to shoulder more of the load."
The Rockets, meanwhile, have won 26 of their last 27 games and 31 of their last 34. They've won 15 straight at the Toyota Center, 10 straight since Yao went out with a broken foot and 11 of their last 13 games by double digits.
Another challenge awaits &
the Rockets play Boston on Tuesday.
"Let's keep it going," McGrady said. "This was a good test for us. We came out and took care of business."
Critics continue to dismiss Houston's streak as a fluke, saying the Rockets have played a bunch of bad teams. McGrady hopes this win silences some of the skeptics, even though the Lakers were missing Gasol.
"This was really all about how good the Rockets are," McGrady said. "This is what this game was about, the Lakers coming in here at the top of the Western Conference. This game determined where we are. We answered those questions, we took on that challenge and we're standing alone."
Alston had 16 points in the first quarter and Houston's reserves scored 25 in the first half.
The Lakers held Houston to 12 points in the third quarter, cutting a 15-point halftime deficit to two. But with the Lakers double-teaming McGrady, Alston hit three 3-pointers in the third quarter to give the Rockets a 71-66 lead heading to the fourth.
"I felt that the attention was going to be on Tracy," Alston said. "I thought if I could get going early, maybe that would shift the attention a little away from him, maybe they wouldn't leave me out there at the 3-point line. But they stayed glued to him all night."
Every time the Lakers got close, someone other than McGrady would keep Houston ahead. Jackson hit a 3-pointer from the corner to put the Rockets up 84-79 after Bryant cut the lead to two with a free throw.
Jordan Farmar's 3-pointer with 6:09 left made it 86-84, but Battier drove for a layup 25 seconds later.
Battier and Jackson sank 3s as Houston surged to a 96-86 lead with 3:20 to play. With McGrady occupying the defense on one side of the floor, Alston drove for a layup and Jackson swished a jumper from the wing that made it 100-86, putting the game out of reach.
Lamar Odom scored 17 and Ronny Turiaf added 13 for the Lakers.
Alston scores 31 as Rockets beat Lakers for 22nd straight win