When the Rockets played basketball Saturday night, they were good at it.
For a stretch of the first quarter, they were dominant.
When they were forced to play whatever that game had been in the second quarter, when Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers employed a hack-a-center defense and turned the game around, the Rockets struggled, wasting much of the good work they had done.
Rivers could not be blamed for taking the air out of the ball - and the building.
But eventually, the game seemed likely to come down to playing basketball.
When it did, the Rockets pulled away again, taking their lead back to 22 points when Rivers had seen enough, clearing his bench with six minutes to go and the Rockets sailing to a 107-97 rout of the Clippers.
By then, the Clippers had run out of hack-a-player options, leaving little hope anything could change.
"That's the team we want to be every single night," Rockets interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff said. "Our defense to start the game was superb.
"Our activity. Our energy. And it was everybody."
Bickerstaff thought the play might have come from something larger than a hot start, citing signs that his players had heard the talk about them - from reports about Dwight Howard's mood to trade speculation - and had come together.
"The guys in that locker room have a ton of pride," Bickerstaff said. "Understanding where we are, overcoming the obstacles, the outside noise, it galvanized the group.
"It brought them together. The trade rumors, it brought the guys together. Now we have to stay that way."
The Rockets were outstanding at nearly everything they wanted to do to start the game.
They controlled the boards. They defended well, holding the Clippers to 27.3 percent shooting in the quarter, the worst-shooting opening quarter against the Rockets this season.
They ran up 38 points, their most in a first quarter this season.
"The last couple of games, we've been trying to focus on going out there and playing free and having a good time and winning," Howard said. "When we do that, we tend to play better defense, our offense is flowing and we are not thinking. Everyone was on the same page."
Grabbing early lead
Howard was dominant early, going 4-of-5 from the field with as many rebounds (five) as the Clippers.
The Rockets moved the ball and attacked the paint. They led by 23 points in the first quarter and by as many as 26 in the game.
James Harden had 18 points with 11 assists.
"Dwight was huge for us," Trevor Ariza said. "He was all over the glass. He was controlling the paint.
"They weren't getting easy looks. We were having fun. The ball was moving."
That was enough for Rivers to intentionally foul Howard and then Clint Capela, slamming the brakes on everything the Rockets were doing so well.
The Rockets' 26-point lead was reduced to 11 by halftime and to as little as seven points in the second half.
But the Clippers had not found a defense built to last. When Ariza got on a roll in the third quarter, scoring 13 of his 17 points, the Rockets began to pull away. When Howard, Pat Beverley and Marcus Thornton started the fourth with a burst, the Rockets headed to a blowout.
By the time the Clippers began fouling to get over the limit, Howard had taken a seat with 22 points on 8-of-11 shooting and 14 rebounds.
Nothing better typified his play when not going to the line than his final basket when Howard blocked an Austin Rivers shot on one end and took a fast-break pass from Ariza for a hammer of a dunk on the other.
"I saw him running the floor," Ariza said. "You make a great play on the defensive end, you got to reward the big fella."
The Clippers began fouling again after that, but Bickerstaff ran Donatas Motiejunas back on the floor for Capela. The Clippers fouled Motiejunas, anyway, but he made both free throws, ending that strategy.
"I was thinking, 'Eight months I was shooting free throws,' " Motiejunas said of his long rehabilitation from back surgery. " 'These guys don't follow my twitter or they don't know what's going on.'
"It was a long game. It ended up a little bit shorter."
By then, the Rockets had gotten everything they wanted from it.
"This is a great, great game for our group," Bickerstaff said. "It's something we've been looking for, for a while, obviously.
"The energy was spectacular. It was awesome. I think that's the way we have to be every single night."