HOUSTON (AP) -- The Houston Rockets' 21st consecutive victory gave them the second-longest winning streak in NBA history and a share of first place in the Western Conference.
Now the real work begins.
Tracy McGrady scored 30 points and the Rockets beat the Charlotte Bobcats 89-80 on Friday night to break a tie with the 1970-71 Milwaukee Bucks for the second-best victory streak in league history. Only the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers, who won 33 in a row, had a longer streak.
The win sets up Sunday's showdown with the Lakers at the Toyota Center. Both teams are 45-20, the best records in the West.
"This is pretty remarkable," McGrady said. "I'll always remember this. I'm definitely cherishing this moment."
After the Lakers on Sunday, Houston faces Boston, New Orleans, Golden State and Phoenix next week. Keep the streak alive through that stretch and the Rockets will certainly silence critics who say they're still not a title contender and have feasted on a weak schedule since their last loss -- to Utah on Jan. 27.
McGrady is looking forward to it.
"Now the true test comes to see how good we really are," McGrady said. "We're going to find out. This next week is going to be a good week for our team."
As the final seconds ticked off, Dikembe Mutombo waved his arms, urging the capacity crowd to stand and cheer. McGrady simply stood at the free throw line near the Rockets bench, a tired grin on his face.
When time expired, red streamers rained down as the crowd started chanting "M-V-P!" for McGrady.
Jason Richardson scored 28 points and Emeka Okafor added 23 for the Bobcats, who've lost five in a row to Houston.
Charlotte read all about the Rockets' recent run before the game.
"We were determined to come in here and try and end the streak," Richardson said. "We thought we might be able to sneak up, but they are a very aggressive team."
Rafer Alston added 17 and Shane Battier had 12 points and nine rebounds for Houston, now 9-0 since Yao Ming's season-ending foot injury.
The Rockets also extended their home-court winning streak to 14 games, the longest since the 1985-86 team won 20 in a row at the Summit.
Houston has won 25 of its last 26 games and 30 of its last 33, easily the best stretch of any team since late December.
The Rockets had won 13 of their previous 20 games by double digits, but the Bobcats made them work for this one.
Houston hit seven of its first 12 shots, then missed its next 14 tries to fuel a 21-1 Charlotte run. Richardson scored 11 points during the spurt, including two breakaway dunks and a 3-pointer. Jared Dudley's putback two minutes into the second quarter gave Charlotte a 29-18 lead, the largest deficit the Rockets had faced during their victory streak.
McGrady slammed home an alley-oop pass from Bobby Jackson with 8:28 left in the half, Houston's first field goal in 10 minutes. The Rockets then started heaving up questionable long shots early in possessions -- they missed 14 of their first 17 shots from 3-point range.
Alston hit a 3 with 1:46 left, then hit a driving one-hander to pull Houston to 41-36. Okafor answered with a bank shot to put Charlotte up by seven at halftime.
Houston coach Rick Adelman told his team to stay patient in the second half.
"During one stage of the first half, we acted like we had to catch them in two minutes," Adelman said. "I said, 'There are 24 minutes in the second half and we have to go out and trust each other, that we're going to fight through this and come out ahead.'"
Houston opened the third quarter with a 26-11 run, started when Battier rebounded his own miss and put back a layup. Battier then deflected a pass and saved the ball to Alston, who started a fast break that Luis Scola finished with a layup to cut Charlotte's lead to 43-40.
Later, Mutombo swatted away a shot by Matt Carroll and Battier finished a fast break with another layup to put Houston up 54-50. McGrady sank a shot from the wing with 3:30 left in the quarter to complete the spurt and put the Rockets up 62-54.
"It's so important, in a close game, to come out and set the tone in the first couple minutes of the second half," Battier said. "That's been a priority for us all year. We want to make the first hit, make them call timeout in the first couple of minutes and set the tone."
The Bobcats missed 11 of their first 17 shots after halftime, but Gerald Wallace's 3-pointer in the final seconds cut Houston's lead to 64-62.
The Rockets scored the first eight points of the final quarter to keep control. After McGrady hit a fadeaway from the baseline, he flexed his muscles and yelled, "Let's go!" as he trotted down the court. Reserve forward Mike Harris then scored inside to stretch Houston's lead to 72-62.
The Bobcats twice closed within six, but the Rockets made the stops and free throws when it counted.
McGrady said the hard-fought game ideally prepared Houston for the rugged week ahead.
"This was a great test for us, to see how mentally strong we are," McGrady said.