Rockets have pieces to make title run

HOUSTON Like Boston last season, the Rockets assembled a "Big Three" of their own by acquiring Ron Artest to join Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming.


Artest, who averaged 20.5 points with Sacramento last season, adds toughness, versatility and a third scoring option the Rockets have lacked since McGrady arrived in 2004.

McGrady is 0-for-7 in postseason series since entering the league in 1997, also the last year Houston won a series. McGrady says the addition of Artest gives him and the Rockets their best chance yet to end their droughts.

"I've been waiting for this for a while," McGrady said. "I know I get criticized for not leading my team out of the playoffs, but it's hard when you don't have those pieces to elevate you to that next level. Now I have that. We'll see what happens."

The Rockets hope Artest can do for them what Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen did for Boston last season, forming a trio with Paul Pierce to lead the Celtics to the NBA championship. Boston was the worst team in the Eastern Conference in 2006-07, before Garnett and Allen arrived.

"For that team to go from worst to first," McGrady said, "that gives me hope."

Yao dismisses comparisons between the threesomes by pointing out the glaring difference.

"Boston already got a championship. They can say they have the best three guys," Yao said. "We are looking for that day. I have that confidence that we can do that."

The Rockets don't have to make as big of a jump as the Celtics did. Houston went 55-27 in 2007-08, its first season under Rick Adelman, and lost to Utah in the first round of the playoffs for the second straight season.

Artest played for Adelman in Sacramento, so he arrived at training camp as familiar with the system as any of the Rockets. He's been one of the hardest workers during the preseason, staying a few extra minutes after each practice to work on jump shots.

"It's definitely the most talented team I've been on," said Artest, starting his 10th season. "It's extra motivation, extra 'go-get-it.' I kind of thrive under those situations. I like when I have something to play for, and this year, I really do have something to play for."

Houston also added free-agent Brent Barry, who brings championship experience from San Antonio, a sharp perimeter shot and crafty passing.

Rafer Alston returns as the starting point guard after putting up some of the best numbers of his career during Houston's 22-game winning streak last season. Luis Scola, Houston's second-leading rebounder, is back after helping Argentina win the bronze medal in Beijing.

Shane Battier started 78 games at small forward last season, but Adelman says he can use Artest and Battier interchangeably to defend the best opposing players. Adelman said he'd also use Artest to back up McGrady, or start both of them if matchups look favorable.

"He gives us a guy, similar to Tracy, in that he can post up smaller people, he can take people off the dribble," Adelman said of Artest. "That's going to be our main challenge, working those two guys together and see where they fit with Yao on the floor."

The bench includes scrappy rebounder Chuck Hayes, shooting guard Luther Head, blossoming youngsters Carl Landry and Aaron Brooks and bulky second-round draft pick Joey Dorsey.

"We have a lot of valuable and more versatile people on this team than we did last year," Adelman said.

Still, Houston's immediate goal is getting healthy.

McGrady revealed at the start of training camp that his left shoulder was arthritic and will require surgery after this season. He also said his left knee was healing slower than expected from surgery in the spring.

The 29-year-old McGrady played only one quarter in Houston's first six preseason games and said he might not be ready for the start of the regular season. He was noticeably limping during a fast-break drill at practice this week and could hardly jump on perimeter shots, leaving many short.

McGrady wanted to play in Houston's preseason finale to test his readiness.

"I'm gaining confidence," he said Tuesday. "I've been through three straight practices, grinding it out. A game is going to be a little bit different. Hopefully, it's all positive, because I want to get out there with the guys."

Then there's Yao, who's missed more than 80 games over the last three seasons with four different injuries. Yao broke his foot last February, rehabbed in time to play in the Olympics, and said he was "100 percent" healthy when training camp began.

The Rockets have reduced Yao's workload in the preseason, but his injuries haven't had much to do with his conditioning. In 2005-06, he contracted an infection in his left big toe that required surgery and later broke his left foot. The next season, he broke his right leg and last February, he suffered a stress fracture in his left foot.

"I wish I could play 82 games during the regular season," he said, "and then talk about it later."

Alston had surgery to repair ligaments in his right ankle, and Battier had surgery to remove bone spurs in his left ankle. Battier missed the first four weeks of preseason practices because of inflammation in his left foot.

Houston also is still waiting to see what it can get out of Steve Francis, a three-time All-Star who sat out most of last season with a torn quadriceps tendon. The 31-year-old Francis has been practicing, but it's up to Adelman to see if there's a role for him on this team.

"He struggled last year in camp, in comparison to other guards," Adelman said. "That's just something that's going to have to play itself out."

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