The Houston Rockets gave away a 23-point lead, Dwight Howard was being fouled intentionally and the disdain of the San Antonio Spurs' sellout crowd was roaring down on them in the final minutes of the game.
It was a tense situation that Houston would have folded under last season, James Harden readily admits. The Rockets demonstrated Saturday night that they are a different team this season, even if it is early.
Harden scored 31 points, Chandler Parsons had 25, and Houston overcame a furious second-half rally to beat San Antonio 112-106, handing the Spurs their first home defeat.
"It's a great win for us," Harden said. "Last year we probably would have caved in; they would have beaten us by a lot. So, this year the improvement we've adjusted to has been tremendous. A back-to-back in San Antonio is always tough, but we showed resiliency and pulled out a great win."
Harden had 16 points in the final quarter, going 4 for 8 from the field and 7 for 10 on free throws in leading Houston (13-5) to its fifth straight victory.
Howard had 13 points and 11 rebounds, Terrence Jones added 10 points and 16 boards, and Patrick Beverly scored 11 points.
Tony Parker had 27 points, Tim Duncan added 20 and Marco Belinelli scored 18 for San Antonio (14-3), which has lost two of three.
San Antonio outscored Houston 39-26 to open the second half, with Belinelli scoring 13 points after halftime to set up a furious finish.
Harden hit a high-arcing, off-balance 3-pointer to tie the game at 106 with a minute remaining.
"That was the shot of the game," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said.
Parker then missed a driving layup over Howard, and Beverly tipped in Harden's miss to put Houston up 108-106 with 32 seconds remaining. Manu Ginobili missed a 3-pointer, enabling Houston to outlet to Parsons for a dunk and a 110-106 lead with 16 seconds left to seal a victory over its longtime state rival.
"It's going to be a dogfight every time we see these guys," Howard said. "And that's what we want. That's going to make us better as a team, and it's going to make it fun for the fans to watch."
San Antonio finished 9 for 26 on 3s, including 2 for 9 in the first half. Without the Spurs' usual crisp ball movement, Parker was forced to take the offense into his own hands, going 13 for 27 from the field.
"Definitely," Harden said. "If you get Tony Parker to put a lot of shots up, it takes away from all their guys knocking down 3s and getting us off balance."
The Rockets responded to a late first-half spurt by the Spurs by opening the second half on a 13-2 run that Parsons and Harden opened and closed with 3-pointers.
The run appeared to fire up Duncan, who scored seven of the Spurs' 13 points in one stretch, including an alley-oop-dunk in front of Howard. The Spurs were energized by their stoic leader showing some fire, closing within 81-80 with 2 minutes left in the third quarter.
"They battled back," Rockets coach Kevin McHale said. "It got scrappy and dirty, and they got really physical with us. They got a little lead, and our guys made some big plays and battled back down the stretch."
Belinelli hit consecutive 3s to give San Antonio an 85-83 lead early in the final quarter, its first since going up 12-11 with 6:34 left in the first. He added another 3 to give the Spurs an 88-83 advantage.
"It's a great lesson for us," Popovich said. "When you play a good basketball team, you've got to come with passion, an edge and aggressiveness for 48 minutes - and we did that for a half. (The Spurs) got embarrassed for a whole half. In the second half, their aggressiveness and attention to detail was very good. They got themselves back in the game."
San Antonio shot 80 percent in the opening minutes compared to 28 percent by Houston, but the Rockets were able to stay within a basket until their offense began flowing.
Early in the game Howard ran isolation plays against Duncan, performing the "Dream Shake" taught to him in the offseason by Rockets legend Hakeem Olajuwon on one possession to set up a short hook in the lane.
"On every team that Dwight's on it seems that focus is inside and the shooters get a lot more open looks," Duncan said. "That's a byproduct of having him in there and the shooters shooting the ball well obviously. It's tough. They are tough and we'll see what happens next time."
NOTES: Houston G Jeremy Lin and F Greg Smith both missed the game with sprained right knees. It was the second straight game Lin has missed. . A scene from the 2004 movie `'The Alamo" was shown during the first quarter, making the Spurs the defenders of the Alamo and Texas, and the Rockets as the invading army. . `'Let's go Rockets!" chants broke out during the game. ... Popovich was assessed a technical foul after screaming at official Tom Washington for allowing McHale to stand within a foot of Duncan as he attempted to inbound the ball on the final play of the first half. After stepping in front of Duncan several times to prevent Washington from handing him the ball while he argued a non-call, McHale stood an arm's length beside the Spurs forward as he threw the ball three-quarters of the court to Ginobili. "I was in the coach's box," McHale said. "I probably should've gone and sat my big (butt) on the other side."