With less than 35 seconds left, rare good fortune seemed to smile on the Rockets.
Of the five Miami Heat players on the floor available to foul, Chase Budinger wrapped up the right one. Down just three points, all the Rockets needed was for Joel Anthony to live up to his 62-percent free throw percentage. He had bricked his first two attempts and did so with a hitch that corrupted his otherwise fine foul shooting form.
Instead, Anthony did what role players alongside world-beaters are wont to do. He rattled in the first and swished the second. Aaron Brooks then missed a well contested three-pointer that sealed the outcome.
The Rockets hung with the Heat on Wednesday night until Dwyane Wade's Toyota Center mastery became an obstacle they could not overcome. Miami escaped with a 124-119 victory one night after holding off Amar'e Stoudemire's surging New York Knicks.
This writer predicted a loss, perhaps a blowout, in a Monday column. The tight defeat now sets up a must win New Year's Eve clash with the Toronto Raptors. The Rockets will win that game and return to the .500 ranks, but I am not about to bet wearing some assless chaps on a victory as a certain local sports talk personality did. His name rhymes with Raun Tijani.
Contrary to what some Houston pundits have written, the most anticipated home date of the year did not expose anything new. The Rockets' defense is superior to how it looked against the Three Me-Egos, but still mediocre. Those who just now came to the conclusion the Rockets need a superstar missed the matchups against Derrick Rose, Dirk Nowitzki, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Manu Ginobili.
Rick Adelman's squad accomplished some commendable feats. The Rockets became the Heat's highest scoring opponent. They won the open court battle 23-21, scored two more points in the paint (48-46), won the rebounding battle 44-40, finished with a season low in turnovers (six) and earned 40 free throws.
That missing eighth of those freebies might have made the difference shows how perfect Houston needed to play to have any chance to steal the game. Near perfect was not good enough.
After the game, some fans were still fuming about Dick Bavetta's decision to upgrade Brooks' fourth-quarter foul on Wade from a mere personal to a flagrant-1. Bavetta said in a statement to Houston Chronicle writer Jonathan Feigen that he did not change the call. Feigen knows what he saw. I know what I saw. Bavetta changed it. Whatever.
The refs did not decide the outcome. Not when Miami glided to a 58-percent shooting night. Not when the Rockets attempted a season-high 40 foul shots.
No, the game was decided before tip-off, when the composition of the preferred starting lineup necessitated that Kevin Martin defend Wade. Martin and Courtney Lee forced him into six turnovers, three of which became fast-break buckets. They also contested a number of his mid-range and long-distance heaves. Wade just did what Wade does against the Rockets.
Adelman devised the right game plan. His team ran at every opportunity. Even Chuck Hayes turned a steal into a coast-to-coast lay-up. Martin picked off Wade for a pair of transition dunks. Brooks racked up 20 points and nine assists. Kyle Lowry dished seven dimes and finished with the best plus/minus figure in the starting lineup.
Chase Budinger strung together a series of helpful buckets in the first half for 11 points. Chris Bosh did reach the 20-point plateau but not without hitting some difficult jumpers over Hayes' outstretched arms. Hayes made seven of his eight free throws, an odd and pleasant surprise.
What more could the Rockets have done, given the personnel mismatches?
Miami rolled into town having won 15 of 16 with the kind of two-way roster GM Daryl Morey hopes to build, though it might be a while before any front office assembles an All-Star assortment of the Heat's caliber.
When Wade struggles, Erik Spoelstra can turn to LeBron James as a floor leader and volcanic scorer. He, too, nailed some contested 20-footers against Shane Battier. If James and Wade both fail, Bosh can get going.
The much-maligned Heat supporting cast is also better than purported. The attention paid to James and Wade creates open looks for Carlos Arroyo. His two triples and a mid-range hit afforded Spoelstra's offense a timely boost. Zydrunas Ilgauskas drilled three shots. Mario Chalmers swished all of his pressure-packed fourth quarter free throws.
Wade erupted like magma and ash from Vesuvius for 45 points. The Heat missed just three of 37 free throws. The Rockets one time nine-point lead seemed more like a mirage or temporary reprieve than a chance to blow open the contest.
The Heat's three mercurial talents make routing Miami an arduous task. Even the Celtics had to sweat out their two wins after surrendering commanding double-digit leads.
The Rockets can topple elite foes with their valiant effort. It also helps if the opponent plays with flippancy, as the Lakers seemed to do in the final minutes of a momentous Dec. 1 Houston victory. The Heat can smash any and all comers on talent alone.
Morey's goal is to field a roster that can do the same. Heart and effort can carry teams through December and perhaps to the postseason. It takes supreme talent, or incredible chemistry in the case of the 2000s Detroit Pistons, to contend for a title.
These Rockets are a long way from that, and standing ovations for Andre Johnson and Hakeem Olajuwon, both of whom sat courtside, exacerbated the shortcoming. An appearance from Dream reminded of what the Rockets could accomplish with a top-tier, durable talent. Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady never satisfied that second requirement.
Brooks flew by Chalmers and Arroyo for several lay-ups. Scola finished some tremendous fast-break feeds at the rim. None of it mattered because James and Wade answered each time with an array of stepbacks, one-on-five assaults and spectacular and-one conversions. There was indeed a play in which Wade scored at the hoop despite all five Rockets converging in the paint to deter him.
Houston's biggest advantage, that Miami played a tough affair the previous night, turned out not to be much of an advantage at all. The expected moment when an exhausted Heat succumbed to the Rockets' relentless attack never came. Instead, it was the gassed home squad that cried "Uncle" when Wade made it clear cooling off or slowing down was not an option.
Maybe the Beach Boys, all those years ago, were singing about the Rockets dreaming of a star in the Wade mold landing on their doorstep. Wouldn't it be nice?
The fans on both baselines stood before each half to watch the South Beach rockstars warm up. They gawked. They stared like voyeurs, catching every glimpse possible of the basketball team that enters every arena outside Miami as the despised but curious and scintillating villain. Those imaginary black hats match the black jerseys.
The Heat represent the NBA's version of the Beatles at Yankee Stadium. Thousands show up, though, to heckle them, not to cheer. Secretly, many of those boo birds want to see if the product is as good as advertised. As the Rockets, and the sixth largest Toyota Center crowd ever, learned, it is.
A few teams boast enough talent and experience to counter and dispatch the Heat in a seven-game series. The Rockets do not reside among the few, and that should not come as a surprise.
The Raptors will likely play Friday without Andrea Bargnani, and that makes a Rockets win even more of a certainty. A New Year's Eve triumph will get Houston back to .500 on the strength of an 11-4 December. The Rockets took advantage of the league's dregs and a home-heavy schedule.
They improved enough on both ends to survive a vicious January slate that will send them to Dallas, Boston and San Antonio, and pit them against Utah and a slew of other playoff-bound foes. The team will joust with just four sub-.500 opponents.
Two games versus the Portland Trail Blazers next week will prove paramount in the Rockets' pursuit of a postseason berth. A potential drubbing of the Raptors might also give Adelman the chance to test out uber-athletic acquisition Terrence Williams.
Wednesday, though, cemented that these Rockets cannot become more than a low-seeded playoff entrant. The Rockets almost won the fans' most anticipated home date of the year. Many other games will mean much more to Adelman and the players.
The Rockets executed a sterling game plan and gave themselves a late chance at a rally. With less than 35 seconds remaining, down just three, Budinger fouled the worst free throw shooter in the Heat's regular rotation, and Joel Anthony made both. Moments later Anthony swished two more.
All the Rockets could do was watch the Heat answer every run with the ease and tranquility of a yoga instructor. Even Anthony appeared calm and collected as he rifled in four straight freebies. Miami bent Houston out of shape because, well, teams with such spectacular firepower do that.
It was, indeed, a sight to behold.