Two days after the Utah Jazz beat them by eight in the Toyota Center in late January, the Houston Rockets went on that second-best-ever-in-the-NBA 22-game win streak, making Jazzman Carlos Boozer into a very interested spectator.
"As a fan of basketball, it was incredible to watch," said Utah's power forward Thursday after the Jazz held a team meeting to go over a few preliminaries as they prepare for the second straight season to start the NBA Playoffs in Houston on Saturday night.
"You wanted to know who was going to beat them, and when it was going to happen," Boozer said, enthused about the longest NBA win streak since the early 1970s. It ended when Boston won by 20 in the Toyota Center on March 18.
"It was great, especially when they're missing a huge piece like Yao Ming. You don't see teams that lose a piece like a Yao Ming do that kind of thing, so for them I assume that they have great chemistry, great camaraderie, they love playing with each other, and to put something together like that, you have to have that kind of cohesiveness."
Like most NBA watchers, Boozer didn't see that kind of streak coming from a team that lost its 7-foot-6 All-Star to injury.
"I didn't expect them to be where they are. You have to give them credit," Boozer said. "Those guys worked their tails off, they had guys step up in Yao's absence. You can't replace Yao, but they had guys by committee do that, and you have to take your hat off to them."
But now it's time for the Jazz to think about putting on its hard hats and taking the Rockets to task.
The Jazz twice beat Houston this season once with Yao and once without. But lost badly to the Rockets in EnergySolutions Arena in Utah's first home game of the season, despite 30 points from Boozer. The Jazz, of course, also beat Houston and Yao in Texas in Game 7 of last season's first-round playoff to propel the unexpected run to the 2007 Western Conference Finals.
But those hard hats had better be on tight this weekend and beyond, to listen to Jazz coach Jerry Sloan. Not only does Houston have scoring machine Tracy McGrady, who has outfitted his game to go inside-out, playing in the post to draw double teams and then kicking out for corner threes, or shooting threes himself, but this Houston club also has the kind of lunchbucket players Sloan really likes.
"(Chuck) Hayes, (Carl) Landry and (Luis) Scola, they put a lot of pressure on you. They've got tough guys," Sloan said Thursday. "They're a lot tougher guys, and they go after you hard, so that always gives you an advantage if you've got tougher guys.
"They're like bulldogs going after the ball."
"They don't have that guy inside anymore," Boozer said, "but what they do have is a team that does a good job passing the ball to each other. They cut hard, they move hard, they set really good screens, they're very unselfish, they have guys that hit deep-corner threes like Shane Battier and Rafer Alston, so they have a very good team."
Because the Rockets have a different coach Rick Adelman and six players who weren't on the roster last season when the Jazz shocked them in Game 7, Sloan doesn't see Houston looking for revenge so much as verification of this season's team.
"Well, they have something to prove," he said. "They have a better record (55-27) than we (54-28) do, and they want to prove that. They have four or five guys who weren't with them last year. They added four or five bulldogs. They're not going to worry about what happened last year. They're going after you right now, and that's the attitude we have to have, to try to play through that."
Sloan said his biggest concern is for the Jazz to play like themselves, "staying with what we do."
Jazz point guard Deron Williams will have to direct traffic against a team that now defends better than it did last year. "They just play hard, and they have good defensive principles, and they've got good defensive players," he said. "(Their) help defense is great, They help each other out, they rotate well and they rebound well.
"We feel like we have a size advantage with Yao out, and we're going to try to exploit that."
To center Mehmet Okur, who will likely face 7-2 Dikembe Mutombo early and then smaller, younger players, the Rockets move more fluidly without Yao.
"I would say that without Yao they more faster team," Okur said, adding he feels up to playing a quicker game. "I was able to play night in and night out some nights with the big guys on run-and-gun teams, so I'm used to it," he said.
To Ronnie Brewer, Utah's starting shooting guard who will get the first chances at guarding McGrady, the Jazz can't think offense. "For us to be successful, we have to defend. We can't focus on the offensive end for us to win games," he said. "We have to have a team effort to try to stop him and have other guys beat us.
"You've just got to challenge him, make him take tough shots, and hopefully not let him shoot a high percentage. If you do that I think you did a good job."McGrady was 7-for-21 against the Jazz in Monday's 105-96 win.