CHICAGO - After an 11-14 stumble to start the season, the Houston Rockets have not only righted the ship with a 31-11 rebound since December, they actually resembled last season's crew that finished with a 65-17 record.
Rejuvenated, and with injured key players Chris Paul and Clint Capela nursed back to health, the Rockets are the hottest team in the NBA since the All-Star break, racking up 10 wins in 11 games since February 21.
Entering Wednesday night's (Thursday morning in Manila) game, Houston has won nine straight, their offense firing on all cylinders, while their oft-maligned defense suddenly became tighter than Ina Raymundo's yoga pants, surrendering only 97.8 points per during the streak.
After an extremely challenging few months, the Rockets had finally put it together. The stars have aligned. And they seemed to possess everything.
Health. Harmony. Happiness.
In sharp contrast, the Golden State Warriors invaded the Toyota Center looking like chomps, not champs. Losers in six of their last 10, they appeared disjointed, disorganized, and discouraged.
It was the perfect set-up.
In their building, in front of a full house home crowd of 18,122, the Rockets had their rivals on their heels, groggy, eyes glazed, and begging for another blow, a malicious hit that would take some of the pain away while reestablishing Houston as a legitimate title contender.
It was a free swing.
A big miss.
Golden State 106. Houston 104.
The fact that the Warriors won without the injured Kevin Durant (right ankle contusion) adds another layer of misery to the deflated, demoralized Rockets. It's like a politician losing an election and then crawling from the debris of a massive landslide.
"When you're missing Kevin's 28 points. it's tough," Steph Curry told The San Francisco Chronicle, making it sound as though they just bearded a lion in its den.
They did not. Curry, who had 24 points and five dimes, was being disingenuous and simply neglected to mention that even without KD, the Warriors can generate more power than the Caliraya dam.
After taking the brunt of his team's recent slide, DeMarcus Cousins quieted the critics with a loud 27 points, eight rebounds and seven assists performance, while Klay Thompson finished with 30 on 12-of-23 shooting.
The Warriors made 20 of 32 treys but sank a high 49.4 percent overall (42 of 85),.
Apparently, Houston's enhanced defensive vigor appears to be a myth.
The Rockets had a fairly good shooting night - 37 of 78 overall and 11 of 41 from distance - but they got crushed off the boards, 44-31. Predictably, the Rockets relied heavily on isolation plays while the Warriors moved the ball freely, resulting in a 28-18 edge in assists.
CHRIS PAUL had 24 points but he struggled with only three dimes against three turnovers. Clint Capela was solid, 13 points and 13 rebounds, but he was dwarfed by Cousins. Eric Gordon had 17 and it wasn't enough.
So it boiled down to reigning MVP James Harden to come to the rescue, Too bad, he couldn't even save his own errant shot-making. He went 10-of 23 from the field but missed a hideous 10 of 12 three-point attempts.
Harden played 37 minutes. most of it spent chasing the Warriors, who got off to a 15-7 start and took control of the fourth quarter with a 96-82 advantage at the 8:29 mark.
When it was all over, Harden looked like a guy who could use a massage and a sunnier disposition.
As for the Warriors, they looked like two-time defending champions who will need another trip to the jeweler to design their new rings sometime this June.