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BASKETBALL NOTES

Booster Rockets kicked in

Howard, Mutombo prevented a crash

When one thinks of MVP candidates on the Houston Rockets, two names immediately come to mind: Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming. Well, coach Jeff Van Gundy would like to add a couple more, not as league MVPs, but as season-savers for his team: Juwan Howard and Dikembe Mutombo.

Van Gundy credits those two veterans with "holding the fort" following the Dec. 23 injury to Yao and preventing the Rockets from reprising last year's disappointing season, which ended up with a lottery berth following a different injury to Yao. Howard pointed to a Christmas night team meeting in Indiana, two days after Yao's injury, in which Van Gundy challenged the team not to lose faith -- or games -- while the big man was out. The Rockets lost to the Pacers the next night, but then reeled off nine wins in 10 games.

"Dikembe has been a Defensive Player of the Year and an All-Star. Juwan has been an All-Star," Van Gundy said. "But what they accomplished, playing 33 games in 71 days without the best center in basketball, where everyone thought we were going to go lottery, they held the fort so well that, to me, that's as significant as any accomplishment they've ever had in the NBA. What they did gave our team a sense of belief that, yes, we can."

After Yao went out, Houston went 20-12 and is now firmly entrenched in the Western Conference playoff picture with the big guys healthy (for now, anyway). The Rockets are 2-1 since Yao returned, winning their two games by 31 (Boston) and 21 (New Jersey). They host Orlando tonight.

"At that meeting in Indiana, Jeff said, 'I feel like we still can do something special here. I have the utmost confidence in you guys,' " Howard recalled. "He was right.

"We tried our best to be veteran leaders all season to set an example. The two of us at the beginning didn't get many minutes, but I always tried to stay ready.

"As a professional, you have to respond when there's an injury. I've been a go-to guy. I've been a second option. I've been a third option. I can adapt to any situation in this league, whatever is thrown at me, because I love playing basketball."

After the Indiana game, Howard went on a four-game tear in which he averaged 10.3 rebounds and nearly 15 points. Mutombo, meanwhile, put together 11 straight games of 10 or more rebounds, including two games in which he collected 19, another in which he had 18, and another with 16. Now, the two of them come off the bench, as Yao has returned to the lineup and Van Gundy likes to pair Chucky Hayes with his big center.

And needless to say, both were flattered to hear what Van Gundy said. Said Howard, "To hear Coach Van Gundy say something like that, that is a huge compliment." Agreed Mutombo, "That is the best, coming from your coach, to praise you at that level."

Mutombo went on, "We were in a situation where everybody was about to write us off. Last year, when Yao went out, we went down, too. This year, something clicked. We said to ourselves, 'We're going to make this year the opposite of last year.' A lot of it has to do with our work ethic, the way we conduct ourselves around the young guys, that we stay in shape and that we wait for the time to come."

And when that time did come, they were ready.

Spurs dig in heels on defense

They're baaack! Not that they ever really left us, but with the Suns and Mavericks dominating the Western Conference, the Spurs tended to get overlooked in the championship discussion. But, true to their history in the Tim Duncan era, the Spurs have amped it up considerably since the All-Star Game and now are back in the picture.

They beat visiting New Jersey last night, 93-77, for their 12th straight win, including all 10 since the All-Star Game. What's getting it done? The Spurs' staple: defense. It had been an on-again, off-again enterprise for them for the first 45 games or so, but no longer. In their winning streak, the Spurs are holding teams to 82.3 points a game -- no one has scored more than 96.

After their win Thursday night in Sacramento, Duncan told reporters, "I don't know what it is, but we have turned the corner and been more consistent. We use the regular season to get into form and get ready for the playoffs. Maybe it's taken us that long to understand playing defense, but we're starting to do it."

Since Duncan arrived in 1997, the worst Spurs record after the All-Star break was 18-11 in 2005. (They won the title anyway.) San Antonio has won almost 74 percent of its post-All-Star break games since Duncan came on board. The best year was 2002-03 (another title year), when they won 27 of 33.

This latest run has coincided with coach Gregg Popovich's decision to bring Manu Ginobili off the bench; Ginobili is averaging almost 20 points a game during the streak while emerging as a possible Sixth Man Award winner.

The Celtics -- who, of course, never have beaten a Duncan team -- have one more shot at the Spurs this season when they play in San Antonio next Saturday night. The good news? It's St. Patrick's Day and the Celtics are 19-9 on March 17. The bad news? It doesn't matter what day it is because the Spurs finally are playing like the Spurs.

Success of ex-Eagle Smith flies in face of what some expected

Craig Smith probably would like to forget the game he had a week ago, when he made his first (and only) visit to Boston as a member of the Timberwolves and had 2 points and 1 measly rebound in 29 non-impact minutes. But that has not been the norm for the former Boston College star, who is proving a lot of people wrong about his "stick-ability" in the NBA.

Smith (listed at 6 foot 7 inches, 272 pounds) is among the top 15 rookie scorers and top five rookie rebounders while averaging only 16-plus minutes a game. (Seventeen rookies average more than that.)

"I'm just glad I got an opportunity to play," said Smith, a second-round pick (No. 36 overall) in 2006. "I didn't know where I was going to go, but a lot of people didn't see me as being able to play at this level. I was too small. I was too short. I wasn't able to score. I couldn't defend bigger forwards.

"I'm just happy I'm in a situation where I can prove to them all that I can play."

Wolves coach Randy Wittman credits Smith's four-year college experience as one reason the second-rounder is able to play regularly.

"Guys like Craig and Randy [Foye, another Wolves rookie] are further advanced in the nuances of how to play and the things that you need to teach them," Wittman said. "With those kids coming out of high school, or after one year of college, you have to do a lot more teaching."

What has Smith learned so far?

"That the NBA is a grind. A real grind," he said. "You play every day or you practice every day. There are back-to-back games in different cities. A lot of travel."

There's also the losing. In his four years at the Heights, Smith lost a total of 35 games. The Timberwolves lost for the 34th time this season in Miami Friday night.

"It's tough," Smith said. "But sometimes you have to go through those kind of difficult things just to make you better."

Etc.

Laker effects
There appear to be multiteam battles in both conferences for the final two or three playoff spots. (And, yes, the Knicks are right in the scrum in the East.) A team to watch out West is the Lakers, who limped home yesterday following their fifth straight loss, a 108-92 defeat to the suddenly surging Sixers. The good news for LA? It has only eight road games left, and when you are 13-20 away from home, that is, indeed, good news. The Lakers also have 10 of their final 19 games against teams with their eyes on one of the bottom spots in the Western Conference playoff picture. The Lakers, who once were 13 games over .500, are now only three games over -- and that could drop to two given that they host the Mavericks tonight.

Crazy eights
The East now has three teams -- the Knicks, Nets, and Magic -- that are thisclose in the battle for the eighth spot. The Sixers are making a run -- the victory over the Pacers last night was their seventh in a row -- and it bears repeating that Philly's No. 1 pick is only protected through the top 15 (otherwise, it goes to the Warriors). Orlando, which not too long ago was a solid 22-14, has lost 20 of 27 and was throttled so badly Thursday at home against Chicago that Tiger Woods left his courtside seat at halftime. Orlando's swoon has enabled Miami to pass the Magic (the Heat also are closing in on Washington for the division lead) and allowed reeling Indiana (eight straight losses after last night) to stay ahead of them.

No guarantees
When the Celtics signed second-round pick Leon Powe, they concocted two scenarios by which Powe could guarantee next year's salary of $687,456. One was to be named to the All-Rookie team (which Ryan Gomes, another second-rounder, managed to do last year). That does not look like it is going to happen. The other was a formula based on games played, points, rebounds, and assists. Powe needed to appear in 41 games to start this particular engine and he has done that. But he also needs to have his averages for points, rebounds, and assists add up to 14 -- and he is far away from that at 5.8. The second-year money is all nonguaranteed, but Powe will pocket $150,000 if the Celtics have not waived him by July 1.

Payback time
Think the Bulls are going to remember their two games in Miami this season? Back on Halloween, the Bulls vaporized the defending champs, 108-66, shortly after the Heat players received their championship rings. No defending champion ever had been beaten so badly in its home opener. The Bulls made a return visit to Miami last Wednesday and the rolling Heat, who seem to have overcome Dwyane Wade's absence a lot more than Shaquille O'Neal's, destroyed Chicago, 103-70. That sent the number crunchers at Elias into Defcon 5, and it was determined that no teams had posted 30-point-plus victories over each other in the same season since 1987-88, when the Celtics and Sixers did it. That wasn't all. When the Bulls limped into Orlando the following night and pummeled the Magic, Elias determined that it was the first time in the history of the franchise that Chicago won a road game the day after losing by 30 or more. The Bulls had been 0-10 in that particularly obscure category.

Combination hasn't clicked
Can we still say the jury is out on the Allen Iverson-Carmelo Anthony union? (If we're being diplomatic.) After Friday night's home loss to the Pistons, Denver stands at 9-14 since Anthony returned from his 15-game suspension and joined Iverson. Anthony was heckled as he left the floor after the game, which was more noteworthy for the fact that Rasheed Wallace picked up his league-leading 16th technical and thus will miss today's game in LA against the Clippers because of a league suspension. The Nuggets have a tough row to hoe. They have played 27 road games, fewest in the NBA along with Dallas, though it doesn't seem to matter much where -- or whom -- the Mavericks play these days. The Nuggets play 13 of their final 18 on the road, which may not necessarily be a bad thing in that Denver is a game under .500 at home and also a game under .500 on the road. Of their remaining home games, three of which are this week, there are two against the Lakers and singletons against the Suns and Mavericks.

Nets a bit tangled
The Nets finally got Richard Jefferson back on the floor Friday night, but his presence mattered not a whit. The Nets lost, 112-91, to the Rockets (you have to really not be playing defense to give up 112 to Houston; just ask the Celtics, who surrendered 111 Wednesday). Jefferson had missed the previous 21 games, during which the Nets went 8-13. He played only 16 minutes and, well, looked like he had missed 21 games. He scored 7 points in 35 minutes last night as the Nets dropped their fifth in a row, a streak that began eight days ago with their still-inexcusable collapse to the Celtics in the Meadowlands. But if Jefferson can return to form -- he averages almost 16 points a game -- and if the Nets stop finishing games like Heathcliff Slocumb, then Jason Kidd and the lads have to be the favorite to annex one of those coveted low playoff spots in the Eastern Conference.

Peter May's e-mail address is p_may@globe.com; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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