A step or two over halfcourt, Rafer Alston saw Tracy McGrady headed to the hoop and let the ball fly. Hanging on the rim after his early fourth-quarter dunk pretty much sealed a victory, McGrady looked toward the Dallas Mavericks bench and smiled.
It was that kind of night for the Houston Rockets. Again.
McGrady had 31 points and nine assists and Alston added a season-high 24 points, helping the Rockets boost their franchise-best winning streak to 17 games with a 113-98 victory over the Dirk Nowitzki-less Dallas Mavericks on Thursday night.
"We all believe, man," McGrady said. "When you've got a roster full of guys that really believe in themselves, great chemistry among the team, and we go out and play extremely hard every night, I'm not surprised."
Houston's streak -- which includes five straight wins since Yao Ming's season-ending foot injury -- is tied for seventh-best in NBA history.
The Rockets will try moving into a tie for fourth on the all-time list Saturday night at home against New Orleans, the next team they're trying to catch for a top-tier seed in the Western Conference. Houston already has gone from 24-20 to 41-20; the Hornets are 41-19.
"There is just a real confidence about the way they're playing," Rockets coach Rick Adelman said. "There's a trust in each other and it's just a pleasure to see. As a coach, it's just fun to watch a group of guys come together like they have and maintain this over such a period of time."
McGrady and Alston helped Houston break the game open in the third quarter.
After consecutive long jumpers by Dallas' Jason Kidd tied it at 55 early in the period, the Rockets answered with a 13-3 run. They pushed their lead to 19 on the Alston-to-McGrady alley-oop. A timeout followed and fans started streaming out with 8:42 left.
"They just outworked us -- to a man, every position," Mavericks guard Jason Terry said. "That's something we can't allow to happen. ... They're playing well together right now, but at the same time there's not a team we can't beat."
Josh Howard scored 21 points and Terry had 17 for Dallas, which lost its third straight and fourth in five games. The Mavs also had won 12 straight at home -- but this time they were without Nowitzki, who was serving a one-game suspension for a hard foul on Utah's Andrei Kirilenko.
Dallas' offense was out of whack without Nowitzki, and his team-best 23.6 points and 8.7 rebounds. His absence was especially obvious during the third-quarter meltdown, when the Mavericks kept looking for someone to get the ball to but instead kept turning it over. Dallas had seven turnovers in the period, leading to 12 points for Houston.
The Rockets -- who'd been 0-3 against the Mavs this season -- won by sharing the ball and by protecting it. As of midway through the fourth quarter, when victory was secure, Houston had 22 assists and four turnovers.
"The third quarter we were terrific, just controlled the tempo at both ends of the court," Adelman said. "We just have to continue on with the same attitude and same intensity every game."
Carl Landry scored 17 points, including 12 in the second quarter, and Luis Scola added 12 points and nine rebounds for Houston.
Jerry Stackhouse was the only other double-digit scorer for Dallas with 11. Kidd had seven points, six assists and six rebounds. Brandon Bass, who started in Nowitzki's place, had seven points.
Houston made its first five shots, then its first six in the second quarter. Dallas went through a 2-of-12 drought and other poor stretches, yet managed to go into halftime trailing only 52-50. The Mavericks were almost giddy on their way to the locker room because of the score and because Devean George closed the half by making a high-arching 3-pointer with 0.8 seconds left.
Dallas fell to 4-5 since Kidd arrived. The only consolation is that all the losses were to teams ahead of the Mavs in the Western Conference. Up next for them: Five straight games against teams with losing records. The first four are at home, then they go to Miami to face the club with the league's worst record.
"I thought this would be a good night for us to rally," Dallas coach Avery Johnson said. "But we just didn't have that type of energy. They had it and we didn't. We have to get back to practicing, get better tomorrow."
The teams Houston tied with 17 straight wins: Dallas and Phoenix last season, San Antonio in 1995-96, Boston in 1959-60 and Washington in 1946-47. ... Dallas' last home loss was Dec. 27 against Cleveland. ... Adelman said his team was about to sign C Justin Williams to help fill the void created by Yao's absence. "I know one game he had, because he had it against us, he had something like 12 rebounds in a half," Adelman said.