Jan. 4--ATLANTA -- With cramps attacking a left calf muscle that never had been asked to go so long in an NBA game, Von Wafer could barely walk. He could, however, give everything he had, serving not only as Tracy McGrady's replacement in the lineup but as the epitome of the Rockets' 24-hour transformation from a team showing listless surrender to one displaying determined fortitude.
For Wafer and the Rockets, however, everything was not quite enough.
Matched up on two-time Hawks All-Star Joe Johnson in the final seconds, Wafer failed to commit the foul the Rockets had to give, letting Johnson maneuver until he set up a wide-open Mike Bibby for a 3-pointer with 1.5 seconds left, lifting the Hawks to a 103-100 victory at Philips Arena, the Rockets' fifth loss in seven games.
"I was trying to force them into a tough situation," Wafer said. "I wasn't looking to try to foul, not until he started driving to his right. Then he passed it off to Bibby, and it was too late."
Passing on instructions
Rockets coach Rick Adelman said he had not made his instructions clear enough, though he called it a tough balance between fouling late enough to make it an effective strategy and so late that it risks fouling in the act of shooting.
Wafer, however, had helped give the Rockets a much-needed lift, getting the first start of his career with Ron Artest, Shane Battier and McGrady out.
"It felt good, but I felt so bad because we were so close," said Wafer, who followed his 18 points Friday with 17 on Saturday. "I think we're getting better. We were without two of our main guys, and we were right there to the last second."
They actually had a chance until Aaron Brooks' corner 3 at the buzzer caromed away.
The difference in the Rockets, however, was clear from the outset, and especially in the closing minutes when they rallied back one last time to tie the game.
Defense targets Yao
They had overcome not only being so shorthanded, but a defense that took Yao Ming out of the game after he scored 16 points in the first half, holding him scoreless in the second.
"They were coming at him, but we we've worked on that," Rockets coach Rick Adelman said. "He's got to be solid when he gets the ball. That one play he made, he doesn't pass the ball off the dribble like that. He's got to pick it up and pass it out. And frankly, I thought he got fouled when he got to the middle. I mean, how many minutes did he play (33)? He shot two free throws again.
Yao and Adelman, however, said Yao must take it upon himself to adjust.
"There have been multiple games I did not get on the free throw line tonight, two tonight, four last game. I cannot complain about the referees. I need to find a way myself."
Hawks on target
The Rockets also overcame the Hawks' phenomenal shooting.
The Hawks made 58.9 percent of their shots, the best shooting against the Rockets this season, with Josh Smith making 13 of 16 shots and scoring a season-high 29 points, including consecutive slams for a four-point lead with 3 1/2 minutes remaining in the game.
The Hawks had scored on seven-consecutive possessions then, but missed their next three shots. Luis Scola, who had 16 points and 11 rebounds, scored inside, before Rafer Alston stripped Joe Johnson, setting on Wafer on a break to tie the score with 52 seconds left.
Alston, who switched on to Johnson in the fourth quarter with Johnson well on his way to a season-high 14 assists, stole the ball from Johnson again on the next possession. But Alston lost the ball on his drive, allowing the Hawks to go for their last shot.
Alston, expecting Wafer's foul and a defensive rotation behind him, pinched in to help on Johnson's drive. Bibby was left open for the game-winner.
The Rockets, however, had fallen far enough in their recent slide to seem nearly as encouraged by all they had done as lamenting what they did not get done in the end.
"We played hard," Adelman said. "That's the effort we have to have to turn this back around. Give those guys credit. They played their hearts out. It's too bad they didn't get rewarded."
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