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NBA Preview: Houston Rockets

(The following was written with the heavy assistance of Seven Seconds of Love, aka COUTRAM. I've signed him to the midlevel exception to help with the Rufus on Fire Team Previews. --DA)

We're previewing the other NBA teams a little differently than most previews rock it. You'll see how it works as we go along. For instance, we'll only cover the teams that inspire particular reaction. No offense intended if we don't get to your team. Regardless if you dig ours or not, check out the NBA previews that Celtics Blog is gathering.

Ron Artest's crazy ass makes the Rockets a legit title contender, but after an incredible run without Yao, the big question is if they can remix the best C in the league into the lineup and make it work.

1 -- The Injuries. The Injuries. What what, The Injuries. Yao's foot cracked, and the season ended, right? Except that Tracy Freaking McGrady led them to 22 straight wins. And to a first round loss. Expectations are funny like that. On the one hand, a team with Shane Battier at its core shouldn't be that dominant night in and night out, but on the other hand Shane Battier will make you look silly night in and night out.

Where Artest will make his greatest impact is in his flexibility. The Rockets can get away with playing McGrady anywhere from the 1 to the 3, Battier at either 2 or 3, Scola at 4 or 5, and Artest at the 2, 3, or 4. When someone, inevitably, gets an ow-ee, Artest's ability to play so many offensive roles and lock down on D no matter what will pay dividends. There are even a few whispers I've heard here and there advocating a small lineup with Alston, McGrady, Battier, Landry, and Ron-Ron at the 5(!) that can run, jump shoot, and even rebound with authority.

2 -- When talking about identity, the Rockets have the opportunity to be the most dominant defensive team the league has seen in a while. With both Battier and Artest as shutdown defenders, and Carl Landry and Joey Dorsey fighting everyone in sight for rebounds and respect, it's already an uphill battle to score 90 per night on them. But if Yao Ming commits to defense in a way he hasn't yet, it will be over.

I'm not kidding. Every team in the West will have to consider running a Reggie Miller-style offense with jump shooters trying to escape hunters Battier and Artest if the big fella gives up a little energy on offense and channels it into his defense, where its power will be magnified by his teammates' skills. The paint will be a no-fly zone.

On offense, it's almost criminal that Yao doesn't plant himself on the elbow and either pass or shoot from there in most sets. Landry and the rest are such tenacious rebounders that Yao's formidable presence won't always be needed on the block, and his jumper from there might be as impossible to stop as Ilgauskas's 17-footers from the baseline. That would free up everyone else to move away from the ball, which happens to be conducive to McGrady's, Battier's, and Scola's games.

3 -- With apologies to Chris Rock... We're not saying he should have jumped in the stands, but we understand. What can you say about Ron-Ron that hasn’t been said about him already? It bears repeating: He is the Dennis Rodman of our time. Hall of Fame talent, but also the kind of guy who would apply for a job at Circuit City in the offseason because he could. Also the kind of guy who wouldn't lash out violently, except that the extraordinary pressure the NBA lifestyle exerts is particularly hazardous to his particular health.

4 -- Forget the first round. This team is good enough to expect a title run. If they fail, the damned hell of it might be that the T-Mac Era will be over in Houston. Such are high expectations and results-based judgments. If they don't make it out of the first round, Daryl Morey will have to face the anti-McGrady storm, and he'll also have to consider whether Rick Adelman has served his purpose in nurturing the team as far as he could take them, and if the likes of Avery Johnson can take them farther.

5 -- According to 14/16 voting, NBA fans think Houston is a playoff team. They are the Rufus on Fire pick to emerge out of the West and ultimately win the NBA Championship.