Turning on the computer to find out the Houston Rockets' win streak has reached 21 games is like picking up your car from Maaco. The second you stop thinking about how good it looks, you start worrying about how long it's going to last.
In the Rockets' case, the guess here is not long enough. The dozen straight wins before Yao Ming came up lame and was shut down for the season were noteworthy. The eight since have been downright inspirational.
The streak will surely come to an end today in a home game against the Los Angeles Lakers (1:30 p.m., Ch. 4), even if Pau Gasol doesn't play. If not, it will end shortly thereafter. The Rockets now own the league's second-longest winning streak, behind only the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers, who won 33 in a row.
But before one or the other of their NBA brethren bury the Rockets, a few words of praise.
Consecutive-game streaks in any sport, any time, require a lot of luck. It doesn't matter whether you're Wayne Gretzky, for whom breaking records was practically ordained at birth, or a middle-of-the-pack team, such as the Rockets, stuck in the laissez-faire portion of the NBA schedule.
Gretzky underscored that point having breakfast in Chicago one morning a long time ago. His consecutive-game scoring streak was just about to expire the night before against the Blackhawks, when a teammate's shot hit him in the rear end and deflected into the net. But Gretzky wasn't about to apologize.
He knew exactly how much hard work had been invested in all those other nights, and how much effort it required just to haul his body to the front of the Chicago net at the end of a game in the middle of what was already a long road trip.
"And one thing more," Gretzky said through a weary smile. "I'll bet DiMaggio had one or two just like it, too."
Which brings us back to the Houston Rockets. They've had plenty of good fortune, and the schedule couldn't have broken much better. They've had 14 games at home, played only eight teams with winning records and faced their toughest out during that run, the Dallas Mavericks, when Dirk Nowitzki was serving a suspension.
Maybe that's why the Rockets have garnered little attention and not much more respect. Or maybe because even less was expected.
When Yao went down with a stress fracture, the rest of the Rockets became forgotten men. All anybody wanted to know was whether he would be healthy in time to play for China in the Summer Olympics. Regarding his teammates' chances of survival in a tough Western Conference race without him, the best most people hoped for was that like the sky-high billboards with Yao's likeness still dotting Beijing's skyline, the Rockets could hold their place. Instead, they've climbed over San Antonio to the top of their division.
"You could see the guys, it really means something to get this, and just keep not only the streak going, but keep moving in the right direction," coach Rick Adelman said.
This was Wednesday night, right after Houston overcame a horrid shooting performance to make Atlanta victim No. 20 and tie the 1970-71 Milwaukee Bucks for the league's second-longest winning streak.
The beauty of this run is nobody saw it coming. Not Adelman, who taught the Rockets to play much better defense since coming over from Sacramento; not Daryl Morey, the young "Moneyball" disciple who apprenticed under former Houston GM Carroll Dawson and has made some shrewd pickups; not even Tracy McGrady, on whose shoulders the responsibility for the Rockets' fate fell.
They all look positively prescient compared to the experts.
Just about every pundit with a platform had the Rockets going into the tank, and they've turned those predictions into fuel. They've been getting rebounding and defense from Luis Scola and Dikembe Mutombo and unselfishness and ballhandling from Rafer Alston at the point. McGrady, meanwhile, has been picking up the slack for everyone, whether it's piling up the necessary points from start to finish, like the 41 against New Orleans or the 31 in Dallas, or finishing at the end, the way he did against Atlanta.
"I'm going to do what I have to do," he said, "to get us a good shot."
For the story to end happily, Houston must play well enough the rest of the way to make the playoffs and win at least one round, neither of which is likely to happen. The shame is that's about the only way McGrady, like this streak, finally will get the respect he deserves.
He's long been cast as a great individual talent who isn't durable or prideful enough to carry a team on his back. Yet that's exactly what he's already accomplished these last 20 games.
Maybe that's because McGrady stopped worrying about how long it's going to last, only how good it looks at the moment.