SAN ANTONIO -- Uncorking a 40-point first quarter on the road, especially against the famously stingy home team, is the sort of rare and gleaming gift that should always set you up for a pretty good night.
Holding Tony Parker to six points in the same game, when your best Parker stopper isn't even healthy enough to squeeze into one of those newfangled shirt-jerseys, means you absolutely, positively have to win.
Yet it's never quite that simple for the new Houston Rockets. Not yet, anyway. What's seemingly supposed to happen and what does happen aren't lining up nearly as often as the Rockets had hoped through these first few up-and-down months of the Howard & Harden era, which appeared to hit its latest high point late Wednesday when Houston held firm against a trademark Spurs rally and ultimately closed out an impressive 111-98 Christmas Day triumph.
Emphasis on appeared.
"We'll see," Rockets coach Kevin McHale said cautiously.
Everyone was hedging -- McHale, his players, us -- and not simply because Houston saw its 18-point lead whittled to two by the Spurs before Harden finally hauled the visitors to safety in the fourth quarter. It's because this still-evolving team, James Harden and Dwight Howard's Rockets, have essentially done this before.
They came to the Alamo City shortly after Thanksgiving, rang up 112 points in a win here at the AT&T Center, then stumbled to a troubling December record of 5-6 until rediscovering the fast pace and stretch-you-out ball movement that even mighty San Antonio -- sporting the league's second-most efficient team defense -- has now repeatedly found hard to guard.
Injuries have been a major contributor to Houston's inconsistency, true, with Jeremy Lin (13 points, eight assists) making up for Patrick Beverley's absence on this particular occasion with what might have been the best one-on-one defense he's ever played to usher Parker to such a strangely quiet evening. But Harden didn't deny that the Rockets have also regularly failed to match the "sense of urgency" they summoned on the biggest of regular-season stages ... which in Harden's case meant 11 straight points in one decisive late burst and 16 of his 28 in the fourth quarter after sitting out Houston's past two games with his own nagging foot woes.
How freely the ball zips around the horn is usually a good gauge. When the ball pops, to use McHale's pet term, Houston gets loads of good looks because all those capable playmakers create more space than the defense can cover. When the ball sticks in spite of the Rockets' various playmakers, they become that Jekyll-and-Hyde team prone to visible frustration.
Said Howard: "Just gotta be more consistent. It's something we're all working on as a team."