Sixteen lead changes, nine ties, two consecutive losses to the Denver Nuggets, one stubborn rattle-out jumper by Luis Scola with 5.9 seconds remaining and concurrent wins by the Utah Jazz (in triple-overtime) and the Phoenix Suns. That's how the Houston Rockets lost control of their own destiny and dropped out of the Western Conference playoff bracket after a 105-102 home loss on Monday night. The season isn't lost , but the second-straight defeat at the hands of the Nuggets hurt more than the first. Denver outscored them 58-37 after intermission on Sunday, and the heartbreak happened all over again for Houston. A 61-51 second half split in the rematch culminated with disappointing moments when Scola missed his turnaround shot to tie and Chandler Parsons eventually panned a flat, 29-foot three-pointer to cap a painful 105-102 Rocket loss.
Things started much better than they ended for Houston. Goran Dragic (five), Courtney Lee (six), Scola (six) and Parsons (11) combined for 28 first quarter points as the Rockets jumped out to an early 32-21 lead. One night after Corey Brewer shut him down, Dragic produced five points and five assists in the opening period. A brisk pace and aggressive transition attacks helped Houston shoot 55.6 percent and assist on 10 of its first 15 made field goals, but the most important development was the early spike in paint points. Memories of Sunday's awful 26-point effort in the paint were quickly erased by 20 on the interior in the first and a healthy 48 for the game.
A war between the starting units emerged early on, but it blossomed into a great game. Arron Afflalo dropped in 17 of his game-high 26 points (on 10-16 shooting) before the break, yet the Nuggets' bench held the team back and combined to go 3-15 in first half -- JaVale McGee (seven points on 3-4 shooting) was the only reserve to make a shot or score for Denver during that time, while Andre Miller added four of his game-high 13 assists. Meanwhile, Patrick Patterson started strongly as a sub for Kevin McHale with six points and three rebounds in his first 10 minutes. Unfortunately, that created a problem later on in the game.
What happened is that Patterson's initial burst subtly pushed McHale away from playing Samuel Dalembert in crunch time, which turned out to be a mistake. Dalembert disrupted the Denver attack unlike anyone else on Houston's roster on Monday night. His challenges in the paint and his presence on penetration changed the complexion of the game, and just to prove it he also set a new season-high with seven blocked shots in just 24 minutes of action. It wasn't foul trouble that held the Haitian out -- he had just two personal fouls all night -- but he still didn't play a single minute in the fourth quarter. Maybe Dalembert is just easy to forget about (his NBA.com profile picture still has him wearing a Sacramento Kings jersey).
In any case, McHale's decision bothered Rockets fans as well. Here's what Patrick Harrel of SB Nation's Rockets blog, The Dream Shake, had to say about the frontcourt rotation down the stretch:
In the first quarter, Samuel Dalembert played consistent defense, grabbed rebounds, and took care of the ball, propelling the Rockets to an 11-point lead. In the third, he got right back to it, keying a pair of Rockets' mini-runs with huge blocks.
Yet, as he has done the entire season, Kevin McHale rode Patrick Patterson and Luis Scola in clutch time, leaving Dalembert on the bench. Patterson was playing one of his better games of the last two months, especially on the boards, but the Rockets' defense struggled immensely down the stretch without a true center.
As well as the Scola and Patterson unit is offensively, McHale should've given Dalembert a shot at some point in the fourth, especially with Patterson's game tailing off in the closing minutes.
The final period belonged to Ty Lawson, Al Harrington and Corey Brewer. That trio combined for 29 of Denver's final 30 points on a scorching 9-13 shooting. All three feasted on transition opportunities -- Denver outscored Houston 17-3 in the second half -- and Afflalo particularly played well. The five-year, $43M dollar deal he signed with the Nuggets over the summer look every bit like a great move on Monday night, as the swingman moved well, made great decisions with the ball and scored efficiently thanks to good shooting.
The Patterson-Scola backcourt conceded a few easy finishes to Lawson and Harrington in the final minutes, and the Nuggets shot 56.3 percent as a team in the final period to close out their big win. Parson and Scola both kept the Rockets within striking distance, but each missed on a chance to tie the game in the last 10 seconds. The energetic Houston crowd held on until the final moments, but it was not rewarded for its enthusiasm or loyalty. Take a look at the current state of Western Conference playoff bracket to see why the loss hurts Houston so much:
|1||y - San Antonio Spurs||43||16||0.729||-||29-13|
|2||y - Oklahoma City Thunder||44||17||0.721||-||31-12|
|3||x - LA Lakers||39||22||0.639||5||30-13|
|4||x - LA Clippers||38||23||0.623||6||27-18|
|5||Memphis Grizzlies||35||25||0.583||8 ½||23-22|
|7||Dallas Mavericks||34||28||0.548||10 ½||24-22|
|Utah Jazz||32||30||0.516||12 ½||22-23|
The Suns still have a tough schedule remaining (vs. OKC, vs. LAC, vs. DEN, @ UTA, vs. SAS), and the Rockets own the tie-breaker over the Jazz, but Houston has lost four-in-a-row and is forced to hope for the Suns to fail. It's not the best position to be in with so few games left. That's what made Monday such a heartbreaking loss.
For more on this game Rockets fans should check out The Dream Shake and Nuggets fans should visit Denver Stiffs. For more news and notes from around the NBA head over to SB Nation's NBA Basketball page.
For all of Monday's NBA box scores, check out SI.com's NBA scoreboard.