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 the safety in the fourth quarter. It's because this still-evolving team, 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."
The promising part for the Rockets, amid all the hedges, is the work Howard's doing in trying to lead the way on top of the big numbers he has been generating all month. Team insiders say Howard's comfort level continues to swell to levels we never remotely saw in Los Angeles, which was especially evident this week when Santa Dwight sprung for fancy (as in pricey) presents for every single teammate as well as new iPads for everyone on the coaching staff.
"Nicest gift I've ever received," Parsons proudly said of his new gold Rolex. "By far."
Howard didn't stop there, though. He also sprung for a five-figure pair of limited edition Nike Air Mags modeled after the glowing shoes that transported Michael J. Fox to the year 2015 in "Back To The Future II" to present to stunned Rockets guard Aaron Brooks.
"Very, very exclusive," Brooks said. "He follows me on Instagram and he knows I'm into shoes and that's how he knew what I like.
"So generous. Most people on the outside look at him wrong. I know 'cause I did, too, before [becoming Howard's teammate]. He's a great guy. Huge heart."
Howard then went out and edged his faceoff with Duncan, overcoming second-half foul trouble to finish with 15 points, 20 boards and two blocks. Duncan managed 11 points, 14 boards and six blocks himself to continue his own December resurgence, but the defeat dropped San Antonio to an un-ignorable 0-6 against the rest of the West's top five.
"In December, it doesn't matter as much," Duncan said. "But it's starting to matter more and more."
Let's face it, though: The bigger questions and doubts will persist about the Rockets, compared to Duncan's Spurs, until Harden can prove that his season-long ankle issues are truly manageable. And mostly until Houston either finds a trade partner for disgruntled center Omer Asik or convinces Asik to buy back in once the 7-footer from Turkey shakes the legitimate knee issues that have plagued him throughout the month.
Parsons fueled Houston's scalding start with 14 of his 21 points in that 40-point blitz in the opening quarter. And Terrence Jones -- typically twice as productive at home than he is on the road -- rumbled for an eye-catching 21 points, 14 boards and three blocks. But Houston's bench, beyond Omri Casspi, has been thinned considerably with Beverley and Asik out.
Even the happiest of teams need depth if they want to contend.
Harden's claim that the Rockets are "maturing" likewise demands more proof. It was admittedly easy for the Rockets to bring it focus-wise for the first-ever Christmas Day game that the Spurs have hosted. As Howard explained: "We look up to this team. We want to be like them one day."
The trick is what happens now? What next? The Howard & Harden Rockets followed up their Nov. 30 conquest of the reigning Western Conference champs with a demoralizing loss at lowly Utah.
"We won here about a month ago and we [still] went up and down," McHale offered without much prompting.