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1. The Houston Rockets. It’s official. They have won 22 straight games. They are all alone atop the Western Conference. Their 46 wins are third in the Association behind Boston and Detroit (who scored a big win themselves yesterday). They are now owners of the second longest winning streak in the game’s history. The three other teams on the top four winning-streaks list (71-72 Lakers, 70-71 Bucks and the 1999-2000 Lakers) all went on to win the title that season. The Rockets are officially contenders for the NBA title and Tracy McGrady is officially a contender for the MVP Award. There can be no denying it.
2. Rafer Alston. Not since the halcyon days of Volume 1 of the And1 Mixtape have things looked so good for Skip to My Lou, aka Rafer Alston. The Queens native has transformed himself from a Houston pariah before the season to a Houston hero during the streak. When the Rockets drafted Aaron Brooks out of Oregon and re-acquired Steve Francis it seemed that the writing was on the wall for Alston. And, the writing said, “we do not require your services any longer because we are not overly impressed with your point guard play.” It was a long wall. Fast-forward to yesterday afternoon and Alston is raining, high-arcing threes over the outstretched arms of Lakers defenders en route to a career-high 31 points. He scored 16 points in the first quarter to stake the Rockets to an early lead and was clutch down the stretch when Kobe inevitably brought the Lakers back into the game.
3. Shane Battier. Alston was great. McGrady was very good. But, it’s possible that Battier was best. He played 46 minutes (team high for the Rockets), which was only one less minute than Kobe Bryant (game high with 47), who he smothered like spicy mustard on corned beef and cabbage. I don’t remember the last time I saw someone defend Kobe so well. Kobe only scored 24 points and his last bucket came at the 4:56 mark in the fourth. When he hit that shot it was 86-91 in the Rockets favor. It looked like Kobe was about to roll off 8 points in the next minute and a half. I even turned to one of my housemates, who is the biggest Lakers fan ever to be raised in Bergen County, NJ, after Kobe scored his 23rd and 24th points and said, “he’s going to take over right now and finish with 35 points and the Lakers will win.” I said that because that is what Kobe does (Lebron does it too). But he didn’t yesterday. Because of Shane Battier. He doused him like baking soda on a grease fire. And, in 46 minutes of play he only picked up two fouls. He had a hand in his face every time he went up for the ball. He had a body on him every time he received a pass. It was a great performance.
4. Georgia Bulldogs. What a weekend for these guys. On Thursday morning there were 13-16 as they prepared for the first round of the SEC tournament. They were last in the league. Their coach was in danger of losing his job. And even the NIT seemed an impossible pipe dream. What a difference a tornado makes. The Bulldogs reeled off 4 wins in 4 days to snag perhaps the unlikeliest berth in the Big Dance. They had to play a double-header on Saturday after the weather tore a hole in the top of the Georgia Dome on Friday night. They topped Kentucky early in the day on Saturday before re-taking the court six hours later to tangle with Mississippi State, winner of the regular-season SEC West title. And, after navigating those tricky ties the Bulldogs showed up bright and early the next day to tip-off with Arkansas, who had topped Vandy and Tennessee on their way to the conference tourney final. Forty minutes later a coach had some job security and the Bulldogs had a 14-seed in the Dance. Like I said, what a weekend for these guys!
5. The Madness. It’s begun. Are you ready? Do you have an excuse to miss work on Thursday? On Friday? If not, have you set up your account at CBS.com so that you can watch the game from work? Do you know who is going to be this year’s George Mason? Xavier? Drake? George Mason? Who will beat Duke this year? Which top-ranked team will pull a Kansas and bow out early? Memphis? Tennessee? Kansas?
Benched. The Seattle Sonics' defense. Thankfully the citizens of the Seattle are putting up more of a fight to keep their team than the team itself is putting against the opposition. The Denver Nuggets racked up 168 points in regulation yesterday.