Steve Francis is indeed sorely missed.
But without their star player, the Rockets showed some heart late, even if it was in a loss.
Trailing by 12 points with 2-3 minutes to go, the Rockets, behind Kenny Thomas and Bryce Drew, came storming back, but ultimately fell 109-105 to the Pistons in Detroit.
It's the Rockets second straight loss, both on the road, and drops their record to 19-29.
Grant Hill was too strong on this night, hitting 8 of his first 11 and 15-24 overall for 36 points and 7 boards. He hit a huge bucket with 24 seconds left to push the Pistons lead back to 4 and help cool the Rocket rally.
The Pistons overall shot 53% from the field while the Rockets were less than 46%
Still, Drew, Thomas and Kelvin Cato played very well down the stretch.
Cato finished with 23 points on 9-16 from the floor to go with 12 boards while Drew wasn't far behind in the scoring department, matching his career high (20) set two nights ago in Minnesota. Some of his shots were huge buckets late in the game as the Rockets came roaring back to make it a close contest. He also dished off 6 assists.
Without Francis, Drew started and played all 48 minutes of the game -- this after playing 45 in Minnesota.
Thomas scored 16 points on 6-10 shooting, and also connected on 2-4 from long range. Some of his spin moves on drives were amazing... he dusted Laettner one one play so badly I thought Christian was heading towards the bench early.
Cuttino Mobley and Shandon Anderson combined for 29 points. Mobley (16 points) hit just 4-12 from the field, but 7-7 from the line.
Cato exploded for 14 points and 5 boards in the first quarter alone (one nasty alleyoop off a Shandon feed.... geez, he had like 3 or 4 'oops it seemed), but the Rockets still trailed 26-23 after one because Christian Laettner (17 points) and Grant Hill added a combined 18 points.
Hill had 18 by halftime, scoring 10 in the second period but the Rockets trailed just 46-41 at the half. The Pistons broke the lead open though in the third, and led by as much as 17 points at one point in the second half. The Rockets trailed 71-56 when Shandon Anderson took a feed from Cato and got a tough bucket and foul underneath -- the lead was 12. Detroit didn't waver though, and bumped it back to 16 in no time.
With about 5 minutes left in the game is when it got interesting. The Rockets would trim the 16-point lead down to 9 at 93-84 with 4:07 left after Kenny Thomas drove around the baseline and laid it up for 2. After a Bryce Drew three, it was 95-87 Pistons, but Laettner got a tip-in then Jerome Williams (16 points, 9 boards) nailed the short hook to up the lead back to 12.
The Rocks had one more rally left in them however. Drew hit a Dream-like shake and fadeaway jumper off the baseline and after a Kenny Thomas three with 1:18 left, the Rockets trailed 103-97.
Then an amazing turn of events... Devin Gray picked the Pistons' pocket, then after a timeout, Drew hit a tough baseline shot to cut the lead to 4. The Pistons inbounded too fast and Kenny Thomas picked it. He fed Drew, who missed twice, but Kenny Thomas got the board and got fouled as he tried to go back up.
Kenny made both free throws, and stunningly, the Rockets were within 2, 103-101 with 40 seconds to go.
Grant Hill milked it down to 24 seconds and then nailed a 16-foot jumper that put Detroit back up 4, but Cato quickly hit a baseline jumper with 10 seconds left to bring them within 2 again.
However Jerry Stackhouse (23 points) made two free throws, and though Walt Williams slammed home a Kenny Thomas miss, there was just 1.7 ticks left, and there wasn't enough time for the Rockets to finish their valiant comeback.