The hottest team in basketball has won twelve straight games.
Out west, that makes the Houston Rockets just good enough to sit toward the outskirts of the playoff picture, as their 36-20 record has them not-so-comfortably ensconced at seventh place in their conference.
But after getting off to a torrid start and then slowing down for the better part of two months, the Rockets are finally playing the level of top-notch basketball many expected to see from them from the outset this season, albeit not in the manner that was expected. Since seventh place also means three games out of first place in the West, there is no reason to believe that the Rockets won't continue to climb in the standings.
As much credit as stars Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming (and their respective health statuses) deserve for the Rockets' run, one would be remiss to observe what is occurring with this team without showing some love to the role player who has picked up his game as much as anybody on this streaking Houston squad.
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Rafer Alston is having himself a month.
The Artist Formerly Known As Skip To My Lou (And1 street ball, for ya) and, as such, the artist currently known as an oft-maligned journeyman point guard, is in the midst of one of the best stretches of his career and easily his best run of the current season.
Alston is averaging 12.2 points, 3.5 rebounds and 5.7 assists per game this season to go with 40.1 percent shooting, but in eleven February games (all wins), he has picked those numbers up to 14.2 points, 4.2 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game on 43.4 percent shooting, including 39.1 percent from beyond the arc. Those February numbers don't even include one of his most virtuoso performances, as he went for 17 points, 8 boards and 12 dimes in the victory over Golden State that ended January and started the current winning streak.
Alston has been playing his role nearly exactly as desired in the Houston offense. Though he is asked to defer to Tracy McGrady with a fair amount of regularity, when he has been given rein with the ball, Alston has remained poised and controlled the Rockets' offense with efficacy, moving the ball fluidly and taking good shots when he gets them. That may well be all he needs to do to allow this team to be successful, and he is now doing it with far more consistency than ever before.
Well, that and playing defense. Thus far through the winning streak, Alston has certainly done his job in that department as well. The former street baller has busted it on that other end of the floor, and the results have shown, as Alston's efforts have helped keep the Rockets sitting pretty at second in the league in defensive efficiency. Opposing point guards have met a variety of issues against the Rockets lately, due in no small part to Alston's presence. In particular, Baron Davis shot just 6-for-22, Mo Williams went 6-for-18, and Chris Paul was held to 14 points, six below his average on the season. Over the course of the 2007-08 campaign, the Rockets have been an astounding 7.3 points allowed per 100 possessions better with Alston on the floor than off, one more testament to his solid play on the defensive end.
Undoubtedly, Rafer Alston isn't the only Rocket to have picked up his game over the past few weeks, as his team has gone on its longest winning streak in years. Everybody has stepped up on both ends of the floor, and the two studly stars have continued to do what they do, thus allowing for some excellent play all around. But for all the concerns about the point guard position on this Houston Rockets team, it is clear that Rafer Alston has put in some extra work over the past month to assuage the doubters.
Thus far, he is doing a fine job heading in the right direction.