HOUSTON — So maybe the Houston Rockets do need Yao Ming after all.

You don't just lose your wallet and call it good.

The Jazz took all of 45 game minutes, Saturday night, to do what it took them an entire seven-game series to accomplish last postseason — beat the Rockets on the road. So the Jazz's No. 1 big-deal, oh-me-oh-my-what're-we-gonna-do? question seems to have been answered.

Yes, they can win on the road.

That silly little 17-24 road record in the regular season?

Oh, that. They abandoned that in San Antonio three days ago.

After Saturday's 93-82 win, they're up 1-0 in their first-round playoff series and things and already looking up for them.

"Obviously that's what we came here for is to win," said Jazz coach Jerry Sloan, "but it's only one game."

Just goes to show the vacation commercials are true — you actually can leave your cares behind.

The playoffs are just started and already the complexion of the series has changed. That's how they work. Every game is a momentum swing. The Rockets' home-court advantage has vanished like Enron stock.

How did this happen?

It happened thanks in large part to the differences between last year and this.

The difference being, of course, a former No. 1 draft pick (Yao), a former starting point guard (Rafer Alston, out with a strained hamstring) and, at least to some degree, a 3-point specialist (Utah's Kyle Korver). And a rejuvenated Andrei Kirilenko.

This development dampens what, for awhile, was a wild, unlikely, totally unrealistic dream by the Rockets — that they could get along just fine without Yao and Alston. And it worked pretty well during the season when they won 22 straight, right after Yao went down with a fractured foot.

But then they lost two straight, three of four and five of eight.

Reality hit them like a sinus attack. Since then they have been off and on.

However, that doesn't mean Houston couldn't try. The Rockets talked about making do and how they confounded the critics. During Saturday's game, the club even flashed quotes from media outlets on the big screen, predicting Houston wouldn't make the playoffs and that it couldn't beat the Jazz.

One game into it, the critics are looking smart.

While the Rockets are playing without Yao and Alston, the Jazz added sharpshooter Korver, who hit a pair of key 3-pointers in the third quarter and scored 11 points off the bench. It wasn't all that got the Jazz the win, but it was noteworthy. They also got great play from Kirilenko — yup, last year's bewildered head case rolled for 21 points.

"This does a lot for us as a team confidence-wise," said reserve C.J. Miles, "because now we know we can play like this on the road in the playoffs."

That the Jazz would match up for the second straight season against Houston seemed somehow fitting. The Jazz have played more playoff series against the Rockets than any other team (this is the seventh). As far as the Rockets were concerned, there was that unfinished business. Last year, the Jazz won their first-round series in seven games. This year, same storyline, somewhat different cast. Though the Jazz remained essentially the same, the Rockets added several feisty street-fighters like Bobby Jackson, Luis Scola and Carl Landry. They replaced Yao with finger-wagging, age-defying 110- year-old backup Dikembe Mutombo, a man so smart he speaks in five languages — six counting trash.

The playoffs opened this week with the usual niceties, each team raving about the other's toughness. The mayors of the respective cities exchanged slightly cheesy wagers, Houston's mayor putting up some locally produced pecan pies and Salt Lake's countering with ski lift passes.

Still, that's politics, like kissing babies and serving at soup kitchens on Thanksgiving.

By Saturday, the niceties, were pretty much over and the battle was on. As the Jazz lead grew to 16, it was obvious that as much as the Rockets had accomplished this year, they still needed their big guy.

Try as you might, it's hard to drive far if you're missing a wheel.

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