HOUSTON - This is why trying to figure out the Nets is so maddening at times.
They were coming off one of their ugliest losses of the season, succumbing to the undermanned Pelicans two days earlier, and were squaring off with one of the Western Conference's best, a team that had lost at home only eight times in 29 games.
For most of the night, it appeared the Nets would escape a hostile environment with a gritty victory, meaning they could say their 11-day, five-city road trip already was a success even before the finale in Dallas on Saturday night.
But James Harden strutted his MVP stuff just when the Rockets needed him most, benefiting from "some of those calls down the stretch that superstar-caliber guys get," as Jarrett Jack put it.
Markel Brown missed a potential tiebreaking three-pointer with 43.6 seconds left and was whistled for a foul away from the ball on Harden 16 seconds later. Harden then hit a step-back jumper with 27 seconds remaining to send the Nets to a tough 102-98 loss at Toyota Center on Friday night.
"It hurts, it hurts bad," Brown said after scoring a career-high 14 points and spending most of the evening guarding Harden. "But I hate to make those rookie mistakes out there, especially when the game is on the line. The shot felt really good and I thought it was going in and unfortunately it didn't. My bad foul got them the free throw and the ball back. It was just inexcusable."
Actually, the way the Nets (23-33, 2-2 on the trip) let this slip out of their clutches had to hurt.
Alan Anderson's three-point play with 9:22 left sparked a 9-0 run for the Nets, giving them an 86-78 lead with 7:35 left. But Houston outscored the Nets 24-12 the rest of the way.
"We kind of felt like we gave that one away," Deron Williams said. "That was our game to have and we just made a couple of mistakes and we didn't get a stop when we needed it . . . It was a winnable ballgame."
Until Harden, who had 15 points, 12 assists and five rebounds for the Rockets (40-18), gave them heartburn. After a timeout with 49.1 seconds left, Harden was along the baseline being guarded by Brown. He made a move toward the rookie and seemed to fall on Brown's back, drawing a whistle.
Brown was incredulous. "I can't explain it," he said. "The ref just made a call and I personally don't agree with it."
Now the Nets are left hoping to salvage a trip that began with so much promise at 2-0.
"We had a chance to maybe go 3-2 or 4-1 [on the trip]," Nets coach Lionel Hollins said, "but we we didn't get the win in New Orleans, we didn't get the win tonight."