The game was theirs to lose.
And lose it they did.
Thanks to Steve Francis' huge third quarter, the Rockets were rolling, up 9 in the fourth quarter and set to stun the Spurs in San Antonio.
Then "Winning Time" arrived and the Rockets folded like a cheap ironing board as the Spurs ran off 12 straight points late to take the 83-77 victory in the Alamodome.
The Rockets turned the ball over 8 times in the fourth quarter, hit just 3-14 shots and scored a grand total of 11 points.
Even worse is they blew this game at the free throw line, missing nearly half their shots at the charity stripe (14-26 -- two of them coming at the end with the outcome already established).
The Rocks are now 7-17, drop their fifth straight loss, and it's the third time this season they've lost 5 straight.
What really sucks is for the first 42 minutes the Rockets didn't play great, but showed some damn good flashes.
The first half saw a nasty, monster alleyoop dunk by Kelvin Cato (7 points), assisted by Walt Williams (3 points, 3 turnovers, 8 minutes of play ... yeah, he's in the doghouse) who threw the ball a good distance of the court to reach the running Cato.
The show however was Steve Francis, and the third quarter is when the highlight reel really began (despite a nasty baseline dunk in the first half).
He went by Avery Johnson at will. He faked Tim Duncan out in midair, acting like he was going for the dunk then soaring by him for the reverse layup. He picked Jerome Kersey clean on a fast break. He made a gorgeous behind the back pass to Matt Bullard (7 points, 8 boards) for three.
All in all he went for 13 points on 5-7 shooting in the third to go with a pair of assists.
He finished with 24 points on 9-15 shooting, 6 boards, 4 assists and 4 turnovers. Only problem is 23 of his points came through the first three quarters as Francis, along with the rest of the Rockets, disappeared in the fourth.
Shandon Anderson also played well, hitting 4-6 shots for 13 points and 5 boards.
When Kenny Thomas (3-7, 6 points, 5 boards) drove on Duncan and dished to Cato in the paint for a dunk, the Rockets had a 70-61 lead with just over 8 minutes to go in the game.
Then Mario Elie ("I told ya I'd kick ya ass, Clutch") responded with a three to cut the lead to 6.
Over the next 2-3 minutes nothing more than a Rocket free throw was added to the score, and that, at about the 5-minute mark, is when it all went to pot.
The Spurs ran off 12 straight points in just over 2 minutes to take their biggest lead of the game at the time: 76-71.
The Rockets would get within a few points but would never seriously challenge because they were a stupid mistake waiting to happen. Matt Bullard with the boneheaded airborn pass, Kenny Thomas with the travel, Cuttino Mobley with the palming the ball thing and the clincher: A backcourt violation on the inbounds with the Rockets down 3 under a minute to go.
Experience. Leadership. Both played huge roles as the Rockets simply don't have either.
30-40-50 didn't help either. 30% from three-point line, 40% from the field and roughly 50% from the free throw line (which proved huge).
Mobley and Bryce Drew had games they'd like to forget. Combined the two shot 2-15 from the floor for 5 points and 5 turnovers (4 by Mobley). Carlos Rogers added 6 points, but was 0-4 from the line.
Off the record, let me say Sean Elliot is an awful game announcer/color man (he now does the Spurs broadcasts). As the third quarter started he said his key to victory for the Spurs was not to lose the game.
Hmm, insightful. I felt like I was listening to Calvin way back in his rookie announcer days when he did that "Murphy's Law" thing...
"OK ... Murphy's Law tonight: Da Rockets must score more points than the opponent... to win!!"
Yeah, thanks Murph.
Tough loss to take tonight, but if there's a bright spot, it's Steve Francis. Whew boy was he awesome in the third! The kid is something special... but the team as a whole is very young and inexperienced. It's going to take some serious time.