The Houston Rockets came out of the gates like they meant business Tuesday night, blazing to a huge, 19-point first half lead, only to see it slip away in the second half in an all-to-familiar secenario to lose to the Atlanta Hawks, 121-115.
The Rockets couldn't contain the Hawks down the stretch, as four Atlanta starters scored 20-plus points, and the Hawks also caromed 17 offensive rebounds, including several huge ones as the fourth quarter came to a close, to secure the victory.
Dwight Howard scored a season-high 30 points and grabbed 14 rebounds on 10-12 shooting, and James Harden had 26 points 10 rebounds and 8 assists for the Rockets, but it wasn't enough to hold off the hard-charging Hawks in the second half.
The game started off well enough, with the Rockets executing a clear and effective game plan of going inside to Howard and Clint Capela early and often, as the duo scored the first 8 Rockets points to take advantage of the lack of height on the Atlanta front line.
The teams battled to a near standstill before the Rockets got scorching hot to close out the period, as an aggressive Ty Lawson knocked down a triple and assisted on one by Trevor Ariza, and Donatas Motiejunas drained two triples of his own to lead the Rockets on an 18-2 run to end the first with a 41-25 lead.
Atlanta came out in the second and began to gradually chip away at the Houston lead, getting to within 9 points at 47-36 behind the play of Al Horford and Kent Bazemore, but the Rockets once again stepped on the gas.
They continued to go to Howard and Capela in the post, and the strong play of their big men opened up perimeter shooting for Lawson and Ariza to knock down shots from beyond the arc. The Rockets went up 57-38 for their largest lead of the game, and coasted the remainder of the quarter as the offense stayed hot.
Houston was up 71-56 at the half, with their 71 points being their most points in any half this season, while the team shot 69.2 percent from the field, including 9-13 from downtown.
The Rockets came out in the second half the same way they started the first, by going inside to Howard and Capela, but after a few quick Houston buckets, Atlanta began to catch fire. Jeff Teague, Paul Millsap and Bazemore all knocked down big shots to lead the Hawks on a 10-2 run to close the gap to 78-72.
After Bazemore got the Hawks to within 82-79 on a long shot from three, Milsap also drained one to tie the game at 82 with 4 minutes left in the period. The Hawks were in the midst of a 20-6 run that changed the tide of the game.
Harden swished two bombs from deep to push the Rockets back ahead with under a minute to go in the frame, but Bazemore answered with an old-fashioned three-pointer at the buzzer off some lazy Harden defense to get the Hawks back within 92-85 heading into the fourth.
The Rockets extended the lead to 10 points off of two Lawson buckets to start the quarter, but that's when the bottom really began to fall out. Teague and Millsap led the Hawks on an 12-1 run to take a 104-103 lead with just 5 minutes left, and Atlanta reverted to the Hack-a-Howard and Capela strategy in an effort to create some additional space on the scoreboard.
With both big men hitting their free throws, Atlanta abandoned the strategy only to have Harden feed Howard on a sweet behind-the-back pass for a thunderous dunk to put the Rockets up 115-112 , which seemed initially like it could be the dagger.
But after a Bazemore triple tied it at 115, the Rockets melted down completely, starting with Harden failing to get a shot off in an embarrassing display of too much dribbling with only 49 seconds left.
The Hawks followed that up with a Horford layup to go up 117-115, and after Horford blocked Ariza and Millsap blocked Howard on the following possession, Teague hit two freebies and Horford got two of his own for the final 121-115 score. The Hawks closed on a 9-0 run to end the game.
Atlanta was lead by Horford's 30 points and 14 boards, but also got 26 points and 5 threes from Bazemore, 22 points and 13 rebounds from Millsap, and 22 points from Teague.
In addition to the big nights from Harden and Howard, the Rockets also got 17 points and 10 rebounds from Capela and 14 points and 4 assists from Lawson, however, their inability to get a stop down the stretch and to grab a defensive rebound led to their undoing.
They also shot just 36 percent in the second half after the white hot start and turned the ball over 19 times, though the 115 points the offense put up was hardly the problem.
The Rockets fall back to under .500 at 16-17 with games against the Golden State Warriors coming up on Thursday and the San Antonio Spurs on Saturday, and they could easily be three games under the water mark come the start of next week.