There was a moment in the second quarter of first game of the Western Conference Finals, when Corey Brewer took a pass from James Harden and took it solo for a ridiculous fast break layup.
It's a play we've seen countless times this season, an energy play that comes from the Rockets' pace and feel for each other, the game and the moment. It put the Rockets up 49-33 with 7:05 left in the second quarter, and it was a moment that felt surreal, yet another in a week of astonishing, surprising, wondrous Rockets basketball.
The Rockets were blowing by the Golden State Warriors in their building in the Western Conference Finals. Shots were falling. The defense was a swirl of arms and bodies that chased the Warriors all over the court and forced turnovers and bad shots. They looked like the far superior team.
Seven minutes and four seconds of game time later, the Rockets were down three points and wondering what the status would be of their bruised All-Star center. Dwight Howard had 7 points and 7 rebounds, but three fouls. He didn't look healthy.
He wasn't. He came back and played the first seven minutes of the second half, then the first 51 seconds of the fourth quarter. He wouldn't play again, and the Rockets would lose by an agonizing four points, 110-106.
The Rockets got plenty of help for Howard in this game, but the man who has carried Houston on his impossible broad shoulders was missed tonight. The Rockets managed to tie the game at 97-apiece when the Dubs reeled off 11 straight points to all but sink their opponent. They did so with at least two wide open layups, botched switches on back screens you have to imagine the three-time Defensive Player of the Year would have made more difficult.
Incredible hustle and defense by Trevor Ariza gave the Rockets a chance with 14.7 seconds, but the Warriors were able to find Stephen Curry on an inbounds pass, and that was all she wrote.
James Harden was unstoppable, matching the entire Warriors team shot for shot early in the final frame. He finished with his best all-around game in the playoffs thus far, scoring 28 points with 11 rebounds, 9 assists and 4 steals. He should have easily crossed the 30- or 35-point plateau, but shot just 6 free throws when he deserved about 12. Even Jeff Van Gundy, a noted flopping truther (and former coach of the Rockets, to be fair), was commenting on how much contact wasn't being called on Harden.
Even so, Harden kept attacking, and Kevin McHale made sure that if the Rockets didn't have Dwight on the floor, then the Beard would have space to operate, keeping everyone else largely out of the painted area. Harden had all the room he needed to spit fire all over Klay Thompson's esteemed defense.
Along with Harden, Ariza played spectacularly. He was a terror defensively -- it's really something to watch someone dominate so thoroughly with simple length, hustle and intelligence. Both he and Draymond Green do this -- and hit 4-5 three-pointers, continuing his hot shooting of late. He did all he could.
The same goes for Josh Smith, who remains deserving of the starting power forward spot. Seventeen points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 blocks outweighed, at least I believe, some costly turnovers down the stretch. Sure, he bobbled and lost a James Harden pass that could have been a massive bucket with less than a minute left in the game, but it wasn't the easiest pass to handle and he had an otherwise great game.
Terrence Jones and Jason Terry, less so. Jones looked overmatched (again) and Terry shot just 2-9. He again didn't looked lost or slow on defense -- a recurring and still amazing theme -- but he didn't provide the spark on offense the Rockets need from him in the absence of Patrick Beverley.
Since the season started, the Warriors have lost three games at home, including just one so far in the playoffs. The fact that this game was tied at 97-97 in the fourth quarter is an accomplishment, one that will make everyone in the NBA stand up and take notice.
If the Rockets have Superman on the court for them, they might have a 1-0 lead on the road in the Western Conference Finals. Dwight and the Rockets hope he's back for Game 2, and they'll need him
But after witnessing Game 1 and feeling that moment, up 16 in the first half, the Rockets showed everyone, and themselves, that they didn't come this far for no reason. This group has quit for the last time. The Warriors have their hands full.