HOUSTON — As far as seismic shifts in the landscape go, there was no tremor, no low rumble of an earthquake’s warning and it never hit with the fiery blast of a volcanic eruption.
When the Rockets went 49 days — seven full weeks — without a single loss in 2008, it grew quietly for the longest time like an oak tree’s roots growing up through the cracks in a sidewalk until one day it was busting apart the concrete.
The 22-game win streak, second-longest in NBA history, is the outlier in the record book, the one that nobody, even themselves, saw coming, and many, even in hindsight, can still not comprehend.
Before the defending champion Heat, led by the three-headed juggernaut of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, joined the club, only three teams in history had won 20 in a row. The 1971-72 Lakers with their record of 33 consecutive wins and a star-studded roster of Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain and Gail Goodrich went on to win the NBA title. The 1970-71 Bucks, led by Hall of Famers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson, ran off 20 straight on their way to win it all.
In fact, of the top eight win streaks ever in the NBA before the Heat, five of those teams won championships. Only the Rockets did not get out of the first round of the playoffs.
“Our names will be mentioned with Hall of Fame people,” said point guard Rafer Alston. “We have something to tell our kids.”
Shane Battier, now with Miami, has called the Rockets’ streak “organic,” part of a process that evolved over time.
It wasn’t often flashy or pretty, but it was effective, like seeing a boa constrictor slowly squeeze the life out of its prey.
The Rockets were led by Tracy McGrady’s bundle of offensive skills, but they survived the loss of Yao Ming and they won and won with a growing confidence and surging defense. During the 22-game streak, they held 19 of their opponents under 100 points and 13 under 90. They won 14 games by double figures, an average margin of 12.36, and had only three games decided by fewer than six points. They won 15 games at home and seven on the road.
The Rockets even won the last 10 without their All-Star center Yao, whose season was ended by a stress fracture in his left foot on Feb. 26.
“Every time a team gets a chance to come close, the streak comes up,” said forward Luis Scola, now with the Suns. “It was a great stretch. It was a good team. If we lose any of those games it wouldn’t change that fact. But maybe that team wouldn’t be as remembered.
“You know we were playing well. It was a fun team to play with. The momentum that we had going. We were playing very well. We were beating teams just because we were good…That month and a half was great. I remember it was a lot of fun.”
The Rockets were 15-17 on Jan. 2 and 24-20 when they beat Golden State 111-107 on a night when Yao was dominant with 39 points and 19 rebounds. They were fighting for their playoffs lives, sitting precariously as the seventh seed in the Western Conference. Two nights later, they went on the road to win at Indiana 106-103 and ran off seven straight wins where they never gave up 90 points.
“What we’re developing is a great team like the Pistons,” said McGrady. “A great defensive team going out there and playing together and not relying on one or two people to score the rock.”
No. 8 was their narrowest escape, needing Steve Novak to come off the bench to hit a 3-pointer — his only field goal of the game — with two seconds left to rescue an 89-87 win over the Kings.
The streak continued through trades. On the afternoon of No. 10, they sent Bonzi Wells to New Orleans and Kirk Snyder to Minnesota, yet didn’t miss a beat in thumping Miami. They attracted real notice around the league when they whipped the No. 1-seeded Hornets in New Orleans.
When the Rockets took the floor on Feb. 26, the word was out that Yao was lost for the season and the fears inside Toyota Center were palpable. But with 41-year-old Dikembe Mutombo blocking shots, waving his finger and filling the middle, the streak rolled on.
“You could probably check this, but I’m thinking all the way to the 17th or 18th game of the winning streak we still were in the eighth spot or the ninth spot or something like that,” Scola said. “It was a really tough year for the West. The playoffs were in jeopardy.”
Scola is fuzzy on the details, but the truth is that even winning 14 in a row, the Rockets had not moved out of the No. 7 spot. That finally happened when a win over Denver and a Dallas loss jumped them to No. 5.
By the time Kobe Bryant and the Lakers arrived on March 16, all of Houston was at fever pitch. Battier threw a blanket over Bryant (11-for-33, 24 points) and McGrady struggled to make just 4 of 16 shots for 11 points. But Alston bombarded L.A. with eight 3-pointers and when the 104-92 win was complete, the Rockets had taken sole possession of first place in the West.
“We answered the questions,” McGrady said. “We took on the challenge and now we’re standing alone.”
They stood for two more days until the Celtics, the best team in the league with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, finally chopped down the streak with a decisive 94-74 knockout, en route to winning the 2008 championship.
“I’m too close to the situation right now to really appreciate,” Battier said. “When I’m old and gray and can’t dribble this basketball anymore, I think I’ll appreciate it. Right now, we’re still in a playoff run and have got some dogs barking at our heels.”
“All good things must come to an end,” said McGrady.
The Rockets also lost the next night in New Orleans, dropped three out of four, five out of eight, closed the season 11-7 and went into the playoffs as the No. 5 seed and lost in six games to the Jazz in the first round.
But for seven weeks, the Rockets were unbeatable.
TOP WINNING STREAKS IN NBA HISTORY
1971-72 L.A. Lakers
Coach: Bill Sharman
Stars: Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain, Gail Goodrich
Start: Nov. 5, 1971 (110-106 over Baltimore Bullets)
End: Jan. 9, 1972 (120-104 to Milwaukee Bucks)
Playoff result: Won NBA championship
2007-08 Houston Rockets
Coach: Rick Adelman
Stars: Tracy McGrady, Yao Ming
Start: Jan. 29, 2008 (111-107 over Golden State)
End: March 18, 2008 (94-74 to Boston Celtics)
Playoff result: Lost in first round
1970-71 Milwaukee Bucks
Coach: Larry Costello
Stars: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson
Start: Feb. 6, 1971 (111-105 over Warriors)
End: March 8, 1971 (110-103 in OT to Bulls)
Playoff result: Won NBA championship
* 20 consecutive wins by 2011-12 San Antonio Spurs was split between 10 regular season and 10 playoffs and thereby does not qualify officially.