Tracy McGrady seemed stunned by the words.He was told that with a win, the Rockets would be third in the Western Conference.
It was not much of a jump, considering the Rockets had moved into fifth a few wins earlier. And with 17 wins going on 18, third would seem well within reason and expectations.
But he latched on to that goal far more than merely extending the longest winning streak in Rockets history or his career. Everything became about moving into third, as if it symbolized the sort of contending status he really wanted most, and has never had.
"He was ready this morning. You could tell," Rockets coach Rick Adelman said. "I mentioned, 'If you win this game, you tie these guys for the third seed' and I don't think he realized that. He's been very motivated, and we needed a big game from him and he flat out delivered."
McGrady brought 41 points and nine assists, and a determination that was obvious from the start. To him, the reason was more obvious.
"I've never (and) I don't think too many guys on this team felt the wave of being in the third spot," he said. "That's pretty big."
ROCKETS 106, HORNETS 96: They did not defend one another, save a few possessions. Their paths rarely crossed, until the game was over and they exchanged exhausted hugs.
Duels, however, don't get better.
From the start Tracy McGrady tortured the Hornets defense.
Soon after, whatever he did, Chris Paul matched.
McGrady drove to the basket and hit pull-up jumpers.
Paul shot over the defense, and drove to play-making in the lane.
Both dominated as few do against their usually strong defensive teams. But McGrady was backed by a Rockets team on a roll. So with just a few late stops, and two more McGrady drives, the Rockets closed out Paul and the Hornets, taking their winning streak to 18 games with a win Saturday.
McGrady finished with 41 points and nine assists. Paul had 37 points and 11 assists.
But McGrady got more help, particularly from the Rockets sizzling 3-point shooting in the second quarter and strong defense down the stretch of the fourth. With that, Paul finally could not keep up until they met at halfcourt, their battle over.
Replay it again
The Hawks got their win back from the replay game immediately Saturday.
The league standings were automatically updated after the Hawks, 25-36 for 15 minutes in between games, won the replayed portion of their Dec. 19 game against the Heat without either team scoring a point.
It was the league's first replay game since 1983 and a strange occurrence for the Hawks, who celebrated as if they'd secured a playoff berth after winning the same game for the second time.
Perhaps they were following the lead of their coach. Hawks coach Mike Woodson was hyped before the doubleheader began, confident that his players were ready to seize the opportunity in front of them.
"This is a huge night for us," Woodson said. "It's huge because if we take care of our business and get two wins, we're right back in (a tie for) the eighth spot (in the Eastern Conference playoff race). As bad as we've played these last three weeks, we still control our own destiny.
"So the first task for us (was) to get the replay game cleaned up. Then we can move on to the next game and go from there."
The Hawks took care of that business in the second game, finishing off the Heat 97-94 behind Joe Johnson's 39 points and finishing the night 26-36 and back in the eighth spot.
Despite all of the outside pressure being attached to the Hawks' surreal three-games-in-24-hours stretch, Hawks swingman Josh Childress insists their season won't be defined by wins and losses from the weekend set.
And while others have begun to seriously question the Hawks' postseason legitimacy, Childress is convinced that the Hawks are postseason bound.
"We know we're that kind of team," Childress said. "I know it hasn't looked like it lately, but we know that's who we are. We've been searching for ways to get shake this funk off of us and get back to playing the way we were playing earlier in the year. And it just hasn't happened yet. But there's a lot of basketball to play between now and the end of the regular season. And we're not going anywhere."
HAWKS 114, HEAT 111; HAWKS 97, HEAT 94: Joe Johnson stopped being particular about the particulars a long time ago, about the same time the Hawks stopped winning games with regularity.
That's why surviving the worst team in the NBA twice in the same night Saturday was as rewarding as anything he's done on the job in at least two months.
"It was a weird night no doubt, but one where we needed to handle our business and we did that," said the Hawks' captain and All-Star who led the way on both ends of the floor in the nightcap, a closer-than-it-should-have-been 97-94 win before 17,022 at Philips Arena.
The Hawks won the earlier contest 114-111, winning the replayed 51.9 seconds of a protest game from Dec. 19 without either team scoring a point.
The back-to-back wins pushed the Hawks (26-36) back into the eighth and final Eastern Conference playoff spot ahead of New Jersey, for at least a day or two.
Johnson was stellar Saturday night, piling up 28 points by halftime and finishing with 39, eight assists and six rebounds.
It was his will, and relentless effort on both ends of the floor, that carried the Hawks the entire night. And it was a struggle as the Hawks looked to still be carrying the baggage from Friday night's collapse in Charlotte, where they led by 10 points early before being blown out in the second half by the Bobcats.
"I went 0-for-8," Hawks forward Marvin Williams said, "so that means he did my job, and let me see who else. He was a beast tonight. He got it done. It was like he gave us a second to see what we were going to do and he just flipped the switch. He wasn't going to wait.
"Without his performance tonight we would have went home ... we could have lost the first one if he didn't get those two rebounds. You never know. Without his performance, we wouldn't have won these games."
In the Warriors' quest to build on last year's 42-40 record, they knew one area of potential improvement was their record against Eastern Conference teams.
The Warriors went just 14-16 against Eastern clubs last season, an embarrassing mark for a Western playoff team. Neither their home (9-6) nor road (5-10) record was satisfactory.
It's been a different story this season, especially on the road.
Saturday's 104-95 win in Orlando gave the Warriors a 10-5 record at Eastern sites, a full five games better than last year's mark. They won at eight places where they lost a year ago -- at Toronto, New York, Washington, Cleveland, Chicago, Milwaukee, Atlanta and Miami.
The road play has been so impressive, a team that won 12 games away from home all of last season already has 18 road wins this year.
Where they've struggled to make improvement has been at home, where they will take a 9-5 record into Wednesday's game against Toronto. They need a win to fare better than last year's 9-6 mark.
Toronto was one of the nine Eastern clubs that lost in Oakland last year.
WARRIORS 104, MAGIC 95: Taking nothing away from Baron Davis, who burned Orlando for 33 points on the fifth night of a four-game trip, the Warriors could not have beaten the Magic on Saturday night if Andris Biedrins had taken three weeks to recover form his appendectomy rather than two.
Biedrins put in just 19 minutes in his second game back after returning from the Feb. 21 surgery, but most of them came in the second half as he led an impressive defensive assault on Magic big man Dwight Howard.
With its All-Star pouring in 19 points, the Magic built a 55-47 halftime lead over the road-weary Warriors. But Howard was held to two field goals and seven points total in the second half as the Magic was able to add just 40 points to its total, which wasn't nearly enough against the high-powered Warriors.
Davis and Stephen Jackson took care of matters on the offensive end. They combined for 24 third-quarter points as the Warriors, who spurted ahead with an 18-4 flurry, outscored the Magic 33-16 to turn things around.
Davis and Jackson (20) combined for 53 of the Warriors' 104 points in all.