After gritty run, Rockets face big questions

HOUSTON [FULL COVERAGE: Follow the Houston Rockets through the playoffs]

Missing their top two players and a backup center who happens to be the NBA's second all-time shot blocker, the Rockets pushed the Los Angeles Lakers to the brink in their second-round series before losing by 19 in Sunday's Game 7.

Afterward, the Lakers complimented Houston for its grit and heart -- but that wasn't what the Rockets felt like hearing.

"We just lost so we're upset," said forward Luis Scola. "But I think in a couple days or couple weeks, we'll be happy we were able to reach what we achieved. We just need to keep moving forward."

Where the Rockets go from here depends on the health of stars Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming, and whether the team can re-sign Ron Artest.

The Rockets and their fans envisioned a championship run last summer when they acquired the unpredictable Artest to form a Houston version of the Boston Celtics' Big Three.

But the enthusiasm diminished when McGrady admitted before training camp that his knee and shoulder were already aching. The seven-time All-Star played in only 35 games and finally opted for season-ending microfracture surgery in February.

McGrady, a two-time scoring champion, has one season left on his contract that will pay him over $23 million next season. The Rockets are hoping he'll return by January, but he turns 30 on Sunday and the results are mixed on players coming back after undergoing the same type of surgery.

The Rockets went 21-8 after McGrady bowed out, advancing to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 1997, fueling the notion that the team was better without him.

Rick Adelman, runner-up to Cleveland's Mike Brown in the coach of the year voting, shot down that suggestion.

"We didn't have the Tracy McGrady from two years ago," Adelman said. "He was playing on half a leg. He was trying. It was really unfair."

Yao avoided injuries through the regular season and the first-round series with Portland, then broke his troublesome left foot in Game 3 against the Lakers, raising the same old questions about his sturdiness.

The Rockets said Yao will only miss 8-12 weeks and the hairline fracture will not require surgery. Like McGrady, Yao also has one guaranteed year left on his contract, including a player option for the 2010-11 season.

If Houston has a pressing need, it's finding a backup for Yao. Dikembe Mutombo, who filled in capably for Yao over the past five seasons, tore a knee tendon in the playoff series with Portland and retired after 18 years.

While they wait for their stars to heal, the team needs to decide what to do with Artest.

The temperamental forward was Houston's second-leading scorer and complemented Shane Battier as a second lockdown defender during the regular season. He was up and down in the playoffs, though, shooting well in one game and taking too many ill-advised shots in the next.

Artest signed a one-year contract last summer and he was asked during the Lakers series if the artwork in his hair meant that he would be back next season. The hairdo seemed a clear indication of loyalty, with "HOUSTON" carved into one side and a Rockets logo on the other.

Artest wouldn't say if he'd return.

"I'm just having fun," said Artest. "I've been having fun this whole season. I didn't want to stop now. Obviously, I love Houston, though. No question."

The rest of the roster is set and full of potential.

Aaron Brooks played well after taking over at point guard from veteran Rafer Alston, who was traded to Orlando in late February. Brooks was inconsistent in the playoffs, but also had some eye-popping games, scoring 34 in one victory over the Lakers.

Scola continued to develop into one of the league's top power forwards, averaging 13 points and nine rebounds during the regular season. He was also the most durable Rocket this season and started every game.

Team chemistry was also a strength and now they've added valuable playoff experience.

"This was a huge milestone for our organization," said Battier. "We had so many young players. Going to the second round in the playoffs, going to a Game 7 and seeing what it's about -- that's experience you cannot buy. So it's no question, all of our guys, especially our young guys, will be much better because of it."

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