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Smells Like Team Spirit: Reformed Brawler Ron Artest Leads Red-Hot Houston Rockets Against Phoenix Suns Tonight

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On paper, the loss of Amar'e Stoudemire to eye surgery ripped the heart out of the Phoenix Suns -- or at least their playoff chances.

When the Houston Rockets' perennial All-Star shooting guard Tracy McGrady voluntarily opted for microfracture knee surgery (the same procedure that knocked Amar'e out in 2005, crippling the Suns' chances then), the prognosis seemed equally bleak for the Rockets' hopes.

On paper.

But anybody who's followed McGrady's career knows that the regular-season superman is post-season poison. Despite his career 28.5-per-game playoff average, dude's never made it out of round one in seven postseason trips with three different teams, so it's a little surprising anybody inside the loop in Houston uttered more than a mild peep about the deal.

As these things will, the discourse went from a peep to a roar.

In the aftermath of T-Mac's mid-February announcement, his teammate Aaron Brooks summed up the team's take: "It definitely doesn't help having him out for the year but, as far as the in and out, it helps us to be more consistent. You could see that he was laboring out there. He wasn't himself. Even though he tried to fight through it multiple times, it was hard. At times it did hurt us but, like I said, we're still a better team with him. But we know what we've got right now and we have to band together."

Writing on the Rockets blog on nba.com, a Houston fan summed it up for pretty much everyone else: "My thing with T-Mac, he has no heart, no beast in him."

Both are right. Sorta.

Since the announcement, the Rockets have, indeed, banded together, and they've done it on the back of someone who's all beast, all the time: Ron Artest, infamous for punching a Detroit Pistons fan during the November 2004 Pacers/Pistons brawl, allegedly starving his dog, and earning jail time for shoving his wife in a domestic disturbance in Sacramento.

Since coming to Houston in a trade with the Kings last summer, the forward's been eerily quiet off the hardwood, and a solid teammate on. He's averaging 17 points, five boards, and three assists, and he's been an effective enforcer for Rockets center Yao Ming.

With Artest policing the D and surprising guard Brooks stepping into McGrady's scoring role, the Rockets have played like a team with a spine for the first time in the T-Mac era. They've won 16 of 21 since McGrady recused himself, and at 48-26, they're within whispering distance of the Western Conference 2 seed.

With a high seed and their sparkling home record (currently 30-8), it's hard to envision these Rockets getting bounced in the first round. They're looking good -- and not just on paper.

The Suns host the Rockets at 7 tonight at US Airways Center. National TV: ESPN. Local TV: FSN AZ. Radio: KTAR-AM 620. Info: www.nba.com/suns.

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