Catching-22: Before the Heat hit 22, the Rockets did it first in 2008
Before the Heat won 22 consecutive games, the 2007-08 Rockets did it first. But how did it happen? How did a team, riddled with injuries, and without transcendent rosters like the 71-72 Lakers of the 12-13 Heat, boast of the longest modern day winning streak? How does a team go seven full weeks without a loss despite being a mid-table side? Here is there story.
When the clock struck 00:00 in the fourth quarter in Toronto, the members of the Miami Heat had achieved what few in the NBA history ever had. They had won their 22nd game in a row, thus tying second-place for the longest winning streak of all time. Between LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the rest of the squad, they had experienced everything, from a championship last season to MVP awards, numerous All-Star appearances, gold medals and a further trophy-cabinet full of individual and team nods. But this… this was new. The last time they’d lost a game was February 1st, 44 days ago. None of them had experienced this before.
None, except for Shane Battier.
Battier is what scouts and reporters around the league like to call the NBA’s ‘model citizen’. He’s the ultimate glue guy, a small forward who brings limited defensive and perimeter shooting skills but a whole lot of intelligence and leadership qualities that make him an ideal role-player for a great team. Miami wins mostly because of the brilliance of James and Wade, the occasional star-turn of Bosh, the shooting of Mario Chalmers, Ray Allen, Mike Miller and Rashard Lewis, the post defense of Udonis Haslem and Chris Anderson, and the underrated coaching of Erik Spoelstra.
But also because of the presence of Shane Battier.
Battier is the only one that has been there before. If the Heat can defeat the Celtics in their next game, they will surpass the record of 22 consecutive wins held by the 2008-08 Houston Rockets to be the sole holders of the second-greatest streak in history behind the 1971-72 Lakers (who won 33). That Rockets team unfortunately never lived up to their potential, but in winning 22 straight, they forever etched their name into NBA folklore. They had Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming. They had Battier, Luis Scola, Rafer Alston, Bonzi Wells, Bobby Jackson, Carl Landry, Luther Head, Steve Novak and Mike James. And they had Rick Adelman directing the show.
How did it happen? How did a team, riddled with injuries and without transcendent rosters like the 71-72 Lakers, of the 12-13 Heat, boast of the longest modern day winning streak? How does a team go seven full weeks without a loss despite being a mid-table side?
Carroll Dawson left behind an interesting roster for Daryl Morey, who took over as the Rockets’ General Manager in May 2010. Built around Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady – both of whom won All NBA 2nd Team nods – the Rockets won 52 games, ended fifth place in the West, but were knocked out dramatically in a seven-game first round playoff series to the Jazz. As a result, Coach Jeff Van Gundy was fired and in came Rick Adelman, another master tactician. They signed Argentine rookie Luis Scola and traded for rookie Carl Landry and they brought back washed-up but sentimental favourite point guard Steve Francis. Yao seemed to have recovered from an injury-riddled season and the surrounding core of Alston, Battier, Head and Mutombo was kept intact.
After a good start to the 2007-08 season, where the Rockets won six of their first seven games, the team began to stutter, losing their next six in a row and failing to find any sort of consistency till the end of the 2007 calendar year. January was a much better month for the team, as Yao seemed to enter his prime, and McGrady – who was inconsistent in his playing time due to injuries – was still good enough to be a major boost to the team. They won nine of 12 games until January 25th.
A home loss to the Jazz on January 27th gave them a 24-20 record, which was still only good enough for seventh place in the loaded Western Conference. Out East, Boston – with their newly acquired big three – were dominating. But from top to bottom, this was perhaps the toughest year to be in the West: Hornets, Spurs, Lakers, Jazz, Suns, Mavericks, Nuggets, Warriors and Rockets all within reach of the top seed.
On January 29th, Yao had 36 points and 19 rebounds as the Rockets defeated the Warriors 111-107 at home without McGrady. And so it began.
McGrady returned for the next game and the Rockets – who had already hit good form of late – began to soar as February began. Elsewhere in Los Angeles, the Lakers became contenders again by trading for Pau Gasol from Memphis. Meanwhile, a balanced effort in the next game led by Landry took the Rockets to a win over the Pacers. McGrady exploded for 33 in a win over Bucks and 26 to beat the Timberwolves. For a four-game home-stand, Yao averaged 25 a game as they defeated the Cavs, the Hawks, the Trailblazers and the Kings. The win against the Kings was the closest, as Novak came off the bench to make a three – his only shot of the game – to seal win number eight.
Yao played in the All-Star team, but the break in the season didn’t slow down the Rockets when he returned to Houston.
Once playground legend turned NBA point guard, Rafer ‘Skip To My Lou’ Alston, led the team with 22 points in a road win over the Cavs. They won their 10th straight against the Heat. The next day, they beat the West-leading Hornets away from home to make it 11 and all of a sudden, the whole league was paying attention.
On the same day, the Rockets sent Bonzi Wells and Mike James to the Hornets in exchange for Bobby Jackson.
Tragedy struck after their very next game, a home win to Chicago, when a left foot injury ended Yao’s season. Houston had been on a roll with Yao, but still found themselves at seventh place in the tough West. Dikembe Mutombo – already in his 17th season – replaced Yao in the starting lineup.
Thanks to McGrady, the Rockets kept winning, taking the next three against Wizards, Grizzlies and Nuggets to win 15 straight and finally started to rocket up the Western Conference. Mutombo and Battier formed a strong defensive core to give this team its identity while McGrady carried them offensively. Rookie Landry also stepped up in Yao’s absence. In another return to New Orleans, McGrady exploded for 41 as Rockets beat Hornets by 10. Win number 20 came in Atlanta. Number 21 came against the Bobcats. Snubbed from the All-Star Game due to his injury-riddled start to the season, McGrady was now unstoppable.
On March 16th, the Rockets hosted the newly-boosted Lakers, featuring Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol. Behind a 31 point scoring outburst by Alston, the Rockets dominated to win the game by 12 points. It was their 22nd straight victory, and for the first time, they stood alone at the top of the impossibly-difficult West.
The next game was going to be their sternest test. In came the Boston Celtics, leading the East with stifling defence in a match-up of conference leaders. Boston’s brilliance turned this firecracker of a match-up into a walk in the park. The Celtics held the Rockets to just 74 points and led by Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, blew out Houston by 20 points. On March 18, 2008, 51 days after their last loss, the Rockets lost again. The streak stopped at 22.
The Rockets had made history, winning more consecutive games in the same season than any other team apart from the 71-72 Lakers, in history. Using tough defence, they held 19 of their 21 opponents in this streak under 100 points and 13 of them under 90. They won 14 games by double figures on an average margin of 12.36. Only three games were decided by six or fewer points. Making the most of a relatively favourable schedule, they won 15 at home and seven on road. They won 10 without Yao.
The Rockets remained strong, but never rediscovered their top form again. They finished the season 11-7 and dropped to fifth place in the West with a 55-27 record. The West was so tough that, by the end of the season, the eighth-seeded team (Nuggets) were only 6.5 games behind the top-seeded team (Lakers). The Warriors finished 48-34 and still missed the playoffs, becoming the team with the best record ever not to be in the postseason since the eight team playoff format for each conference.
By the end of the season, both Yao and McGrady were named to the All NBA Third Team, Battier to the All Defensive Second Team, Scola in the All Rookie First Team, and Landry to the All Rookie Second Team.
For the second consecutive year, the Rockets faced the Jazz in the first round of the playoffs, and for the second consecutive year, the Jazz defeated them. In a season where the Rockets made rare history they only survived for six games into the postseason. The Celtics – who had stopped the Rockets in their historic tracks back in March – went on to win the championship that season.
The next year, the Rockets added the artist formerly known as Ron Artest to the mix of McGrady, Yao, Battier, Alston, Scola and Landry. They also traded for Kyle Lowry later in the season, as Morey continued to show that he was one of the smartest GM’s in the game. Yao was healthy, but this time, it was McGrady who suffered, playing only 35 games in the year. The Rockets finished fifth in the West again and this time, went to the second round of the playoffs. Without McGrady, they were able to stretch the Lakers (who turned out to be eventual champions that year) to a seven game series before being knocked out in the Second Round.
Five years later. Morey is still in charge, but the Rockets’ roster bears no resemblance to the 2008 side. This squad is coached by Kevin McHale and starred by James Harden, Jeremy Lin, Chandler Parsons, Omer Asik and Thomas Robinson. Aaron Brooks, who was a rookie in the 2008 team, returned to Houston after playing in Phoenix this season, but played just one game before being shipped off to Sacramento.
Yao has retired from the league and now owns a team in China. McGrady left the NBA too, and found himself playing for a different team in China. Scola moved on to Phoenix. Alston moved around the league before also going via China and ending up in the NBDL. Landry now plays in the Warriors and Adelman is now coaching the young Timberwolves.
And Shane Battier is in Miami, where he won his first championship last summer and is now enjoying his career’s second 22-game winning streak.
When asked to compare recently the two winning streaks between the surprising Rockets of 2008 and the world-dominating Heat of 2013, Battier replied, “That was so different, because that streak was pretty organic. It came out of left field and no one could explain it. We couldn’t explain it. It was a bunch of journeyman and role players doing it.”
“It kind of came out of nowhere,” recalled Rick Adelman of the streak, “Our guys got on a roll and they had a lot of confidence and they played with it night after night.”
Battier’s ‘organic’ comment is what makes the Rockets’ achievement all the more special. Miami were already blessed with one superstar in Wade and forced the stars to align for themselves when they signed LeBron and Bosh in 2010. Veteran players like Miller and Battier signed with them to take a ride for the championship, and former All-Stars like Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis padded up this year’s team. Unlike the Heat, who would be the top team in the East this year regardless of a historic streak, the Rockets had to win all those games in 2008 just to stay in the playoff hunt. The Rockets were also blessed with two stars in Yao and Mcgrady, but because of injury struggles, relied more on the efforts of the underrated journeyman in their streak. But by the time they playoffs began, the lack of supporting star power to McGrady ended their season early.
The 2013 Heat will have the chance to move ahead of the 2008 Rockets if they win Game Number 23, which is tonight at Boston, the same opponent who ended the Rockets’ streak back in the March 18, 2008. As fate would coincide it, this game is exactly five years after the game when the Celtics blew out the Rockets in Houston to end their winning streak at 22. Garnett and Pierce are still in Boston, but with the Celtics weakened and the Heat on fire, it seems likely that Miami will most probably go on to win this one. If they do so, they have the Cavs, Pistons, Bobcats and Wizards on the menu next, and they could easily inch closer to the 71-72 Lakers’ 33 unbeaten games. They could make more history. And unlike the Rockets of 2008, they are likely to get much closer to crowing this great season with a championship.
But still, we mustn’t forget that magical spring of 2008, when Yao, Tracy, Shane, Skip, Carl, Luis, Luther, Bonzi, Rick and the rest of them lifted an underdog side into greatness. The 2013 Heat have ‘caught’ 22. But the 2008 Rockets will never be forgotten from the history books.