Resilient Rockets push Lakers to brink

HOUSTON — The Houston Rockets have played their best this season when everything seems ready to fall apart.

They were virtually dismissed as a playoff threat in late February, when Tracy McGrady had season-ending knee surgery and Rafer Alston was traded to Orlando.

They fumbled away home-court advantage in the first round with a 95-84 loss to Dallas in the regular-season finale.

They lost backup center Dikembe Mutombo during the Portland series and leading scorer Yao Ming a week ago against the Lakers.

Yet the Rockets are still playing, pushing Los Angeles to Sunday's Game 7 in their Western Conference semifinal series with the resiliency that has become their defining trait.

"We're surprising a lot of people," said 6-foot-6 forward Chuck Hayes, who became Houston's starting center when Yao, who is a foot taller, broke his foot in Game 3. "I'm sure a lot of people had us written off. But if you did that, then you really haven't been watching basketball for the past month, because we're underdogs and we surprise people.

"People least expect it," Hayes said, "but somehow we get the job done."

The day after learning Yao was out for the rest of the postseason, the Rockets routed the Lakers 99-87 in Game 4. Los Angeles won Game 5 by 40 points, a loss that had many believing Houston's spunk had finally run out.

Then came Game 6 on Thursday night. The Rockets raced to another big lead, staved off a Lakers' rally and won by 15 points.

"We've been through so much, that's been the story of this season," forward Ron Artest said. "We're down, but we never fall and we're never counted out."

The Rockets found out on Feb. 18 that McGrady, the face of the franchise since he arrived in 2004, would miss the rest of the season. The two-time scoring champion was bothered by knee problems from the start of training camp and caused a stir when he announced that he was going to have risky microfracture surgery.

Coach Rick Adelman lashed out at McGrady for not properly informing the team and general manager Daryl Morey said he wanted to talk to McGrady about his apparent decision.

In the midst of that, Houston traded Alston to Orlando on Feb. 19, a deal that brought Kyle Lowry to the Rockets. The move turned Aaron Brooks into Houston's starting point guard, and many questioned if the second-year pro could handle the job.

The upheaval could have easily become a distraction, but the Rockets won 11 of 13 games between Feb. 11 and March 9, including victories over Portland, Cleveland and Denver.

A week later, reserve forward Carl Landry was wounded in the left calf in an early morning shooting in Houston. He missed eight games, and the Rockets won five of them while keeping in constant contact with their injured teammate.

No matter what's happened on the court or off, the Rockets have kept an even keel, a reflection of both Adelman and strong team chemistry.

"We win by two, or win by 10, the locker room is still joking," Artest said. "That helps us stay mentally stable, with this long season of grueling playoffs. It's hard enough playing the game. When the game's over, you've got to go back to being family, no matter what happens, win or lose."

Morey has built a roster of a good mix of veterans willing to mentor and share experience and young players who have accepted their roles without argument.

Artest has found a niche after signing with the Rockets last summer. He admitted his intensity didn't mesh with the team early, but he's settled down and tried to make Houston's more impressionable players see the possibilities he didn't early in his career.

"I took my legacy for granted, so I'm trying to continue to build a legacy," Artest said. "I told the guys, they're young, 'You've got a chance to build a legacy. And when your career is over, you can look back at everything you've accomplished and don't take anything for granted.'"

The reward could come Sunday, if the Rockets can stamp themselves not only the feel-good story of the playoffs, but a legitimate championship contender.

Few are expecting them to beat the Lakers at the Staples Center, where Los Angeles went 36-5 during the regular season.

But the way this season has gone and the team has come together, the Rockets wouldn't have it any other way.

"We've been through a lot this year. A lot," said forward Shane Battier, who missed 16 of the first 18 games with inflammation in his left foot. "It has galvanized the group to the point where, when you have something as small as no one believing in you, it's really a minor thing. It doesn't even faze us."

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