Things were going so incredibly well they were bound to go incredibly bad.
The Rockets held a 26-point lead early in the third quarter, watched the Suns go on an 18-1 tear in the third and the lead wilt down to 4 late in the fourth, but they hit their free throws down the stretch and held on to beat the Phoenix Suns 85-75 Sunday night in a game that could prove huge at the end of the year.
Houston's fifth straight win gives them the playoff tiebreaker over the Suns, by virtue of their 3-1 record against them, and improves the Rockets to 35-30 on the season, a game up over Phoenix.
It wasn't easy, though it sure looked to be early on.
The Rockets simply crushed the Suns in the first half, taking a 55-31 edge in to the locker room. Houston played near flawless basketball, had much more energy than Phoenix and they saw results on both ends of the floor.
After intermission, the wheels just came completely off. In the third quarter, the Rockets coughed the ball up, couldn't get any kind of offensive set going and couldn't hit the broad side of a barn. Couple that with the Suns renewed energy and make it a trio when you throw in the fact that the refs were horrendous and suddenly we had a ballgame.
Also, you can end right now the debate about who is Rookie of the Year, Yao Ming or Amare Stoudemire.
It's Yao, by a longshot.
Yao finished with 20 points on 8-15 shooting, 8 boards and 4 blocked shots (Yes, that's right - the Rockets are now 19-4 when Yao blocks 3 or more shots). He may have finished with a handful of rejections, but he altered several more shots and made everything tough in the paint for the Suns.
Sure, Stoudemire had a highlight-reel rejection of Yao and a nice slam over him (and a ridiculous goaltend of a Yao baseline hook that was not called), but Yao had a block of his own of an Amare dunk attempt and the Suns rookie was frustrated most of the night, missing 7 of his 10 shots.
At this stage of their careers, Yao Ming is the better player. Hands down.
Stoudemire wasn't the only Suns player to shoot poorly -- in fact, none of them shot well against the Rockets. Shawn Marion was held to 4-18 shooting while Stephon Marbury was limited to 7-22 from the floor - their whole team shot 33% from the floor.
I think it's clear also that these two teams despise each other. There were several staredowns, pushes, near altercations. So when the Suns got physical and started to have their way in the third quarter, it looked like the Rockets might completely crumble.
Insert Kelvin Cato.
Cato came in for Yao, who didn't look so hot during this Suns run, and I really can't say enough good things about Cato's hustle and energy tonight. Plain and simple, he busted his ass. He crashed the glass, knocked down 4 big free throws and got an offensive board from a Maurice Taylor miss (there were plenty of those) and knocked down a big hook. He countered Bo Outlaw's physical play with some of his own, getting a flagrant foul for a shove of Bo, then rejected an Outlaw shot something fierce.
Tonight, Cato was terrific.
Glen Rice finished with 13 points -- all in the first half when he knocked down 3 triples -- while Cuttino Mobley added 13 as well. Steve Francis finished with 12 and 6 assists.
Great win. Just a critical win. But I still worry about the Rockets schizophrenic ways after such a masterful first half performance followed up by a clunker of a third period and most of the fourth. I don't know how many times the Rockets dribbled out the 24-second shot clock, leaving Mo Taylor or Glen Rice to fling up a 20-footer. 3 or 4 times maybe? It wasn't pretty.
But the Rockets are on a roll. 5 straight wins. Now, they go on the road for a very tough West Coast road swing.