In the first half the Rockets trailed by as many as 23 points, shot just 36% from the field and looked like they had given up to a team that had lost 8 in a row coming in.
And when the game was just about over, one of the Atlanta announcers summed it up best.
"I liked this game better in the first half."
The Rockets stormed back from a 20-point halftime deficit as Steve Francis nailed the game-winning three with 25 seconds left, putting the Rockets up a deuce as they went on to the 104-98 comeback win over the Hawks in Atlanta.
The Rockets improve to 33-28 and are 11-3 in their last 14 games. They are now also 21-4 against the East, the best percentage of any team against that conference.
It also ties a franchise record -- the Rockets came back from down 23 points in January of 1977 when they beat the TrailBlazers in overtime.
Hakeem Olajuwon played the first quarter but re-injured his calf muscle and did not return to action. It was only the second time in Dream's career he played a game and was held scoreless. Maurice Taylor also sat the game out with a knee injury.
In their absence, the Rockets got contributions from several, but none bigger than that of Steve Francis. Dude was a stud. He was held to just 7 points, 2 assists and a board in the entire first half, but managed to finish with (watch the difference) 31 points, 9 boards, 6 assists and a pair of steals.
He scored 17 points in the fourth quarter and his three with 25 ticks left was a thing of beauty. He faked the pass to the baseline, freeing himself from the defense, then drained the 22-footer. Bottom line is he took over this game in the critical fourth quarter.
But he didn't do it alone, and welcome back Cuttino Mobley. Cat scored 21 points, 6 assists and 4 boards and was big in helping the Rockets whittle the deficit to single digits in the third quarter. Mobley was so dangerous in the third that he was drawing doule teams, helping to free up other players.
And if it was good to see Mobley back, how do you think we felt when we saw Kelvin Cato put up a HUGE contribution off the bench and in Hakeem's absence? Cato hit 5-6 shots, 4-5 free throws and scored 14 points, 9 boards (5 offensive) and a pair of blocks. His defense on Lorenzen Wright (18 points, 15 boards) in the closing seconds sealed the game for the Rockets.
Walt Williams may not have shot extremely well (4-12), but the Rockets needed every bit of his offensive output. 17 points, 7 boards and 3 triples from the Wizard. Shandon Anderson also shot poorly (5-16) but had a solid impact, scoring 15, 8 boards and 3 steals.
Toni Kukoc, the recent acquisition of the Hawks (from the Dikembe Mutombo deal), led the team with 26 points, 11 boards and 7 assists, though 21 of his points came in the first 16 minutes of the game (no joke). Jason Terry added 20 points.
The Rockets shot just 14-38 in the first half, compared to 19-40 (47.5%) in the second half.
Toni Kukoc just exploded in the first quarter -- he nailed 5-6 shots and scored 13 in the period as the Hawks stunningly jumped out to a 29-19 lead after one.
Walt Williams led the Rockets with 10 points. Even worse was Hakeem re-injured his calf and wouldn't return to the game.
The second quarter started out worse. After Kukoc nailed a triple, then Chris Crawford slammed one home on a fast break, Rudy T embarrassingly called a timeout, down 38-21. When Kukoc spun around Shandon Anderson for two and a foul, the forward had 21 points and the Hawks led 43-24.
Two more buckets for Atlanta and the Hawk lead was an embarrassing 23 points.
After Shandon Anderson nailed a three the Rockets cut it to 49-29, but Shandon followed that up with two straight turnovers and the Rockets couldn't get back in it.
When Kenny Thomas nailed a pair of free throws with 1:14 left in the half, the Rockets trailed by 17, 54-37, but Jason Terry followed that up with a triple and it was that kind of half.
Atlanta 59, Houston 39 at intermission.
I don't think Walt Williams even played in the second quarter and he was still leading the team with 10 at half. Cuttino had 9. Kukoc led the Hawks with 23 points.
The third the Rockets came out a little better. After Francis nailed a pair of free throws and Shandon found Mobley underneath for two with a beautiful touch pass, the Rockets trailed 62-48.
After Walt hit a triple with 6:24 left in the third, the Rockets were down 66-53. Steve Francis broke free for an all alone dunk, but he got stuck deciding between a dunk and a layup and missed.... but Mobley came flying in from behind the action and slammed it home.
When Francis found Cato for a driving layin, the Rockets had whittled the lead down to 10 at 69-59 and Lon Kruger and the Hawks had to stop the action with a timeout with 4:53 left.
The Rockets kept it going... after two free throws and then a drive to the hoop and foul by Shandon Anderson, the Rockets cut it to 4, 75-71 with 44 seconds left. Jason Terry nailed a jumper at the buzzer of the third that gave us the score going in to the fourth: 77-71 Hawks.
The fourth started out good. An offensive rebound ended in Walt feeding Cato for a slam and foul. His free throw made it 77-74 Hawks. Francis followed that up with an emphatic slam and the Hawks had to call timeout with the Rockets within just one point.
After the Hawks scored, Francis nailed a triple then Mobley scored on a drive and was fouled (though he missed the free throw), and unbelievably, the Rockets seized the lead 81-79.
Dion Glover quickly scored, but Mobley responded with a triple from the baselinf off a Francis feed and it was 84-81 Rockets. After Francis nailed a cold-blooded three with a defender in his face, it was 88-83 Rockets.
Jason Terry responded with a three, but Shandon picked a steal and ran the other way, picking up a goaltending call and foul. He missed the FT however, leaving it 90-86 Houston.
A Cato jam with 4:40 left made it 92-88 Rockets but Lorenzen Wright immediately brought it to within two with a jumper. A Dion Glover offensive putback tied it up at 92 with 3:38 left.
A Lorenzen Wright baby hook with 3:06 left gave the Hawks the lead 94-92 and a furious Rudy T, screaming for a foul, called timeout.
Cato was fouled, but made just 1-2 free throws. Lorenzen Wright was fouled on the other and and made both, putting the Hawks up 96-93.
Francis made a tough driving shot, but on the other end, with 2:02 left, the refs called illegal defense on the Rockets and the freebie made it 97-95. They forced a miss, but Shandon responded by missing a wide open baseline three (not a defender within a mile) and Lorenzen Wright was fouled with 1:17 left.
He made 1-2, giving Atlanta a 98-95 lead.
Francis responded with an amazing baseline move on DerMarr Johnson and was fouled going to the rack. His two free throws cut it to 1 with 56 seconds left.
The Rockets put up a great defensive stand next, forcing the Hawks in to a bad pass and losing it out of bounds with 36.5 seconds left. Timeout Rockets.
Francis -- who else.
Francis took a swing feed from behind the three-point line and as they had been doing all night, he started to pass out to the baseline but held up. The Hawks' defense bit on the fake and Francis pulled up from three.....
BINGO! 100-98 Rockets with 25 seconds left.
After a Hawks timeout, they worked it in to Wright but Cato's defense forced him to take a bad shot. Walt snared the board, was immediately fouled and made both free throws with 11.8 seconds left.
102-98 Rockets. That was all she wrote.