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. Instead, he let Johnson maneuver and then pass to 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 comes in the act of shooting.
To his credit, Wafer 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 scoring 16 points in the first half, Yao was held scoreless in the second.
"They were coming at him, but we've worked on that," 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 (33) did he play? He shot two free throws again. It amazes me how he never gets any calls. When he moves through the lane like that, they don't look at anybody pushing on his body."
But both coach and player said Yao must take it upon himself to adjust.
"There have been multiple games I did not get on the free-throw line - two tonight, four last game," Yao said. "I cannot complain about the referees. I need to find a way myself."
Hawks on target
Atlanta made 58.9 percent of its shots, the best shooting performance against the Rockets this season. Josh Smith was 13-of-16 in scoring a season-high 29 points, including consecutive slams for a four-point lead with 3? minutes remaining.
The Hawks had scored on seven consecutive possessions then, but they missed their next three shots. Luis Scola, who had 16 points and 11 rebounds, scored inside before Rafer Alston stripped Johnson, setting up Wafer on a break to tie the score with 52 seconds left.
Alston, who in the fourth quarter switched defensively to 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, pitched in to help on Johnson's drive. Bibby was left open for the game-winner.
"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."
They did, however, leave Atlanta with renewed hope for a season that had been sinking out of control when they arrived.
Saturday: Hawks 103, Rockets 100.
Tuesday: Rockets at Philadelphia, 6 p.m.
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