Okay, perhaps it’s not quite at the level of one of the most famous moments in sports history, but for the first time since the Yao Ming era, the Houston Rockets are returning to the playoffs. Three years of above-average basketball while still missing the playoffs, of three straight 14th picks, of a team in flux and “competitive rebuilding”, of going after Chris Bosh, then Carmelo Anthony, then Andre Drummond, then Dwight Howard, and finally a player who many doubted would be the star the Rockets needed, but instead surpassed all of our expectations. It’s all over, as this signifies the birth of a new era, of a young, exciting team that has plenty of avenues of improvement.
We’re back. And the Houston Rockets returned to the playoffs tonight by barely defeating the worst team in the Western Conference with the strangest, and arguably the stupidest ending to a basketball game I have ever seen.
If there was anything which characterized this game, it was the 3 point shot. On that front, Houston’s performance was horrific. 6 out of 30, the first five all in the first half, and a huge amount of these 3’s were completely wide open. It didn’t matter who shot them, whether Garcia, or Beverley, or Harden. They clanked off the rim. Meanwhile, the Suns did not suffer this concern, as sub 35 percent 3 pointer shooters like Markieff Morris and Dragic drilled open 3’s of their own. Houston compensated with aggressive foul drawing and constant ball movement with a focus on getting into the paint, but those efforts were highly inconsistent throughout the game.
The complete inability of the Rockets to make much of anything outside the paint meant that while they had flashes of passing and fast breaking which even gave them double digit leads for brief periods of time, the offense repeatedly stagnated as the Suns packed the paint and dared the Rockets to hit jumpers. In the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th quarters, there were stretches of over four minutes where the Rockets failed to score. Meanwhile, all of the former Rockets players, especially Scola, could not be stopped. Scola was slow to start off for about the first 18 minutes, going 1-5 for 6 points, but he then erupted for the rest of the game and especially the 4th quarter, scoring 9 of Phoenix’s final 11 points to finish with a performance of 28 points and 8 rebounds. It was in typical Scola style with clever post ups, hustling down the court, and hitting that mid-range jumper of his, but the entire Houston frontcourt, even including Omer Asik, had trouble handling Scola’s abilities. The final stretch where the Rockets could not score helped push Phoenix ahead with a 95-92 lead with 2:25 left.
But the Houston backcourt of Lin and Harden made some key shots and free throws to tie the game at 98 apiece, Scola missed an easy chip shot after spinning by Greg Smith, and the Rockets had the ball with 9 seconds to win the game. However, Harden dribbled the ball out far too late in an isolation set, got trapped, heaved up a three, and it clanged up into the air. It looked like Houston would be playing another five minutes.
But the ball had not fallen off the cylinder quite yet, and in what is sadly only the second stupidest move of his 17 year career after a certain incident in Detroit, Jermaine O’Neal, after going 2-12 for 6 points and letting Omer Asik tie his career high of 22 rebounds, decided to put a hand in the net for…some reason. The Rockets players realized what happened instantly, and the referees made the correct call and hand what Kevin McHale noted afterwards as the first game-winning goaltend he had ever seen. Combined with the Utah defeat against Oklahoma City, and the Houston Rockets are returning to the playoffs, and also need only one more victory to secure the 7th seed.
- I mentioned above that Terrence Jones and Greg Smith struggled while they tried to guard Luis Scola, but let us not construe to state that they had bad games. Both of them finished, fought the underrated Suns frontcourt for rebounds, and had some monster dunks. Jones in particular had a strong game, helping to stabilize the Rockets during the first cold stretch during the 2nd quarter, and he was rewarded by playing for most of the 4th quarter. While I’ve openly maintained my concerns about Jones’s jumper due to its slow and unorthodox release, he did hit a midrange jumper during the second quarter, which helps to ease my concerns about his range to some degree. Motiejunas, by contrast, only played 6 minutes, and did not particularly do anything of note during this game, missing both of his two shots.
- Now get out there and celebrate.