Rockets hit 21 as win streak reaches Surreal Zone

HOUSTON -- That the Houston Rockets' winning streak hit 21 games Friday night hardly qualifies as news; it was only the Charlotte Bobcats, after all, and the game was at home.

Instead, Houston's 89-80 win over the Bobcats might be remembered for becoming the night the streak officially hit the Surreal Zone. Friday's events provided yet another torrent of good fortune for a team that has seen quite a flow lately.

The end result: Houston is tied with the Los Angeles Lakers for first place in the Western Conference. The Rockets can take over sole possession with a win in their showdown against L.A. here on Sunday (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET).

How is this getting surreal? Let us count the ways.

Start with the fact that Friday's victory came in large part because of a double-digit fourth quarter from Mike Harris. If you have no idea who Mike Harris is, there's a good reason -- a week ago, he wasn't in the NBA.

Yet, in keeping with Houston's theme of a different role player stepping up each night, Harris was the difference-maker as the Rockets stretched their lead from 64-62 at the end of the third quarter to 77-64 on his dunk. He ended up with more points in that stanza (10) than in his entire NBA career to that point (8).

Then add the good fortune that came in other games around the league.

First, New Orleans beat the Lakers, allowing Houston to catch L.A. atop the West.

Second, the Spurs faltered in Detroit, thanks in part to Bruce Bowen's one-game suspension, which let the Rockets push the defending champs down to fifth (though just one game back) in the insanely close Western Conference playoff chase.

Now, here's the real kicker: Remember how we've been saying for the past several days that Houston's upcoming week would provide the real test of their strength, with a slate that began with the Lakers, Celtics and Hornets?

What if I told you that each of those three teams suffered injuries to at least one star player Friday night -- in New Orleans' case, it was two -- thus making that upcoming three-game test look much easier on paper?

Unbelievably, it happened. In the first half, the Rockets trailed by 13 points -- tied for their largest deficit of the winning streak -- and it looked as if the streak could end at 20. By the second half, news of the injuries crossed the press table just as Houston rallied. So, in an amazing couple of hours, the Rockets not only extended the streak but got the kind of breaks that might help them continue it.

First was L.A.'s Pau Gasol, who went down in a heap about a minute into the Lakers-Hornets game, suffering an ankle injury that seems likely to keep him out of Sunday's showdown. Then came Boston's Ray Allen, who aggravated an injured heel and left Boston's loss to Utah. Finally, it was the Hornets' turn, as both Chris Paul and David West suffered ankle injuries that could affect their availability for Wednesday's game in New Orleans -- a game that could be Houston's 24th straight win.

It fits in with the recent trend for the Rockets. Last week, they missed West, the Hornets' newly minted All-Star power forward, when the teams played in Houston, and they caught another break when Dallas superstar Dirk Nowitzki served a one-game suspension during their March 6 meeting.

Yet all these injuries remind us of something that makes the Rockets' streak seem even more amazing: Houston is hobbled, too. If these other teams are expected to suffer without their injured stars, then what do we make of Houston's amazing play in spite of its own injuries? The Rockets have won nine straight since losing All-Star center Yao Ming for the season with a stress fracture of his left foot, three since high-energy rookie forward Carl Landry checked out with a bruised knee.

That's why a guy such as Harris, who was the Rockets' last cut in the preseason, became a factor tonight. "I made up my mind at halftime I was going to play Mike Harris when [Charlotte] went small," said Rockets coach Rick Adelman. "He has the ability to finish at the basket, and he can defend their perimeter people."

"We did not want to cut him when we cut him in training camp, but we just had numbers and we couldn't keep him," Adelman said. "So I was very comfortable [playing him]. I watched him play summer, watched him play training camp, and he's got a toughness that you can't measure."

Houston also is doing all this while working Bobby Jackson into its rotation after a midseason (and midstreak) trade of Bonzi Wells and Mike James to New Orleans, and the newcomer is still feeling his way in the Rockets' system.

Friday night's scoreless effort dropped Jackson to 21-for-62 from the floor as a Rocket, and Adelman said before the game that Jackson was trying too hard to fit in rather than being the aggressive player he coached in Sacramento.

Because of those issues, the past two games against Eastern doormats Atlanta and Charlotte have shown some cracks in the Houston edifice. Offensively, the Rockets had horrid first halves in both, shooting a combined 27-for-87 against two mediocre-at-best defensive teams. Tonight the offense was so stagnant that Adelman felt compelled to play Tracy McGrady all 48 minutes, and T-Mac came through with 30 points to lead all scorers.

Another problem -- or perhaps a symptom of the team's nonexistent post offense in Yao's absence -- was Houston's near-absurd reliance on the 3-pointer early in the game. The Rockets attempted 19 bombs in the first half, four more than they average for an entire game. That might not have been such a problem if they had made them at their usual 35 percent rate, but Houston was a ghastly 5-for-29 from downtown for the game.

Adelman also thought the streak weighed on his team's offensive choices tonight. "I think maybe we wanted it too much during parts of this game," he said. "At one point in the first half when they were making a little run, we acted like we had to catch them in two minutes."

Yet the streak goes on -- it's now the second-longest in NBA history, trailing only the Lakers' 33-game jaunt in 1971-72. And Adelman's decades of NBA experience have given him an appreciation of just what a unique feat it is.

"This is the greatest thing I've ever been around," he said -- strong words from a man who has coached in multiple NBA Finals. "The way they approach their job, the way they handle the streak, not getting too far ahead of themselves and playing hard every night."

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.