Houston --- Three-and-half quarters of quality work won't get the job done in the NBA. It never has and never will.
The Hawks learned that painful lesson the hard way Tuesday night, getting outplayed in the first seven minutes and the final five minutes and change in a deflating 92-84 loss to the Houston Rockets at Toyota Center.
It was the Hawks' second straight loss and 14th straight in the state of Texas dating back to March 2004.
"It was the last six minutes," Hawks coach Mike Woodson said. "We went up by eight points and we got very happy, like the game's already over. They came back, and we had no answer for them. We're playing hard, but not for 48 minutes."
They started Tuesday's game against Houston like zombies, trailing 13-0 just minutes into the game and by 16 before the end of the first half.
But they woke up in plenty of time to make things interesting, taking control of the game in the third quarter. But leading by eight with a chance to put the game away, the Hawks promptly fell apart.
Leading 76-68 after his huge 3-pointer with 7:58 to play, forward Josh Smith missed three consecutive shots and then turned the ball over, costing the Hawks all the momentum they had built up to take the lead.
The Rockets outscored them 18-8 over the final five minutes and 36 seconds of the game, getting a clutch 3-pointer from Rafer Alston with 2:28 to play and back-to-back baskets from Yao Ming in a 30-second span to finish off the Hawks and leave them one last chance, tonight in San Antonio, to solve their Texas riddle.
"We should have closed them out in the fourth quarter, and we didn't get the job done," said Hawks captain and All-Star Joe Johnson, who finished his night with a team-high 22 points on 8-for-19 shooting. "When Yao came in we didn't have an answer. Then the game turned real ugly."
The Hawks will next face a Spurs team that played Tuesday night as well; they won 133-126 in double overtime in Dallas, where the Hawks lost Saturday after another late-game rally fell short.
Unlike in Dallas, though, the Hawks had this game in hand midway through the fourth quarter and simply couldn't finish.
While the Hawks were busy firing away from deep, they shot just 8-for-21 from beyond the 3-point line and didn't shoot a single free throw after halftime, ruining any chance they had of stretching their lead late.
A rested Ron Artest also made things difficult. He controlled the action on both ends of the floor down the stretch. He nailed a huge 3-pointer with 5:11 to play to give the Rockets the lead back for the first time since early in the third quarter, and he had the assist on a Yao layup with 4:40 to play to give the Rockets the lead for good.
Artest finished the night with 19 points, nine rebounds and five assists, leading all five Rockets starters in double figures.
The Hawks also had all five starters in double figures.
"Our shots weren't going down and we had too many turnovers," Hawks point guard Mike Bibby said. "It wasn't like we weren't going inside, but our shots weren't falling. Ron did a good job. He took over the game, and he made the plays down the stretch."
NEXT FOR Hawks
* Who: at Spurs
* When: 8:30 p.m. today
* TV; radio: Fox Sports South; 790 AM