The NBA Closer is written by Matt McHale, who's about this close to ordering a Dikembe Mutombo jersey. When he isn't marvelling at the continued mobility of the venerable (i.e., ancient) center, he can be found whistling Dixie at Basketbawful. Enjoy!

They're on a mission from God. That's about the only explanation I have left for how the Rockets keep winning games. Yesterday, they won their 22nd in a row - and claimed sole possession of the top spot in the Western Conference - by beating the Lakers 104-92. The L.A. defense threw a net over Tracy McGrady (11 points, 4-for-16 shooting), but Rafer Alston made them pay for it by hitting 8 three-pointers and scoring a game-high 31 points. Luis Scola added 13 points and 11 rebounds, Shane Battier chipped in other 14 points, and Bobby Jackson scored 19 off the bench in what was yet another total team effort by the Rockets. In the absence of Pau Gasol (sprained ankle), Kobe Bryant went back into "one-man team" mode and got a reminder of how much fun that isn't. Mamba had almost as many missed field goals (22) as points (24), and he seemed to wear himself out by hounding McGrady and playing all but 57 seconds of the game. Lamar Odom had 17 points and 11 rebounds for the Lakers., who dropped to 0-2 on their current four-game road trip.

Uh, I don't remember seeing that guy on the scouting report. If you're going to beat the Pistons, you have to contain guys like Jarvis Hayes. No, seriously. Hayes scored a game-high 29 points (10-for-13), including 19 during a 10-minute stretch of the second quarter that helped Detroit come from behind and eventually take a 105-84 decision over the Hornets. Said New Orleans coach Byron Scott in his artificially deepened voice: "(Hayes) was a big surprise - a guy we didn't mention a whole lot when we were talking about their team." It was an honest mistake, coach. Chris Paul had 14 points and 14 assists for the Hornets, but he was clearly hampered by a gimpy ankle, and its pretty obvious the team misses David West. Like, a lot.

Feel-good teams are fun. LeBron James could have beaten the Charlotte Bobcats by himself, but it was the Bobcats, so he didn't have to. Ben Wallace grabbed 15 rebounds and added two late field goals, and Delonte West hit an 18-foot jumper with 52 seconds left to hold off the 'Cats and secure Cleveland's 98-91 win. King James, who had 33 points, 7 rebounds, and 10 assists, said: "It shows they can help this team if we put them in position to score." Well, yeah, that's why they're called "teammates," Bron Bron. Jason Richardson scored 33 points for Charlotte. Warning: Somebody needs to check Wally Szczerbiak (3 points, 1-for-4) for a pulse or something. He's starting to smell funny.

I ran outta gas! I had a flat tire! I didn't have enough money for cab fare! My tux didn't come back from the cleaners! An old friend came in from outta town! Someone stole my car! There was an earthquake! A terrible flood! Locusts! It wasn't my fault I swear to God! If Isiah Thomas has any defenders left who aren't named Isiah Thomas, they might point out that the Knicks went to war last night without three members of their season-opening starting lineup - Stephon Marbury (ankle surgery/banishment), Eddy Curry (torn knee cartilage/fat), and Quentin Richardson (sore right wrist/cranky vagina). But after losing at home to the Atlanta Hawks 109-98 and hearing even more boos from the Madison Square Garden crowd, it's pretty obvious that Isiah has officially run out of excuses. And hope. On the other end of the spectrum, the Hawks moved into a tie (with the Nets) for eighth place in the Eastern Conference Playoff race thanks to Joe Johnson's 28 points and 11 assists. Said coach Mike Woodson: "He's trying to carry this team into the playoffs. He's putting them on his back and he's playing well." Hey, I've got to give the man his due: Joe Cool is averaging 29 points in his past eight games and Atlanta is now a mere 10 games below .500 (28-38). Most impressive.

Payback never felt so hollow. This wasn't exactly a rematch of the 2006 Heat/Mavs Finals. In fact, only one member of that Heat title squad - Jason Williams - even played last night. And he didn't play well. Nobody on Miami did, except some kid named Earl Barron (career-high 21 points), and unless you're Earl's mom, you probably didn't even know he was on the team. Dallas led 35-12 after one quarter and pretty much cruised to their 98-73 victory from there. Herr Nowitzki paced the Mavericks by scoring 21 points in 25 minutes, Josh Howard added 14, Jason Terry and Brendon Bass each had 14 off the bench, and Avery Johnson tossed in a few coaching platitudes: "We had to come out and really be focused. Guys really challenged themselves." What? You guys were playing the Heat, Avery. The only challenge was staying awake long enough to build a 20-point lead. Fun fact: The Heat (11-24) weren't officially eliminated from the playoffs until Saturday. Pretty much says all you need to know about the Eastern Conference.

The night that defense died. Note: This is not a misprint, and I'm not making it up. The Denver Nuggets beat the Seattle SuperSonics by the NBA Live-like score of 168-116. Said Kenyon Martin: "A lot of people are going to think it's a misprint. A lot of people will think there's no way they scored that many points. It's unbelievable. There are no words for it." Actually, I can think of some words, and they rhyme with "no defense." Denver shot 60 percent from the field, dished out 44 assists, and had eight players score in double figures, led by Carmelo Anthony's 26 points. Allen Iverson added another 24, and Marcus Camby had a triple-double of 13 points, 15 rebounds, and 10 assists. The Sonics got 23 points out of Kevin Durant.