The 2012 NBA standings say the Houston Rockets are in play for the final spot in the Western Conference playoff bracket and that the New Orleans Hornets are the worst team in the West, but Thursday's head-to-head matchup said otherwise. Heck, the past two weeks have told a completely different story. The Hornets have nothing to play for except professional pride -- in fact, they could increase their odds for a premium pick in the 2012 NBA Draft with additional losses -- yet New Orleans picked up its seventh win in 10 tries with a thrilling 105-99 OT victory over Houston.
Meanwhile, the Rockets are ostensibly in the race for the eighth seed, but another defeat pushed their season-high losing streak to six games. Houston's odds of making the playoffs were down to just 14.7 percent before the letdown in New Orleans according to John Hollinger's Playoff Odds, so be sure to keep your ears open for the somber serenade of the proverbial Fat Lady.
The Rockets pushed their own back against the wall with some frustrating second-half collapses during the past week, and in a must-win against Hornets that disturbing trend of back-loading bad basketball continued. In the first half, Houston used hot outside shooting (7-12 3PTs), good ball movement (17 AST) and wise decision making (4 TO) to jump out to an eight-point lead at intermission.
Marcus Camby cashed in seven of his first eight shots (only two of which came in the painted area), while Chase Budinger bracketed an early 15-2 Rockets run with silky shots from long distance. Marco Belinelli (11) and Eric Gordon (12) combined to outscore their nine teammates (20) and kept the Hornets close enough heading into the second half.
The third quarter changed the complexion of the game. New Orleans outscored Houston 26-13 during that span, as the Rockets went cold from the field (6-20 FGs, 30.0 percent 2PT, 14.3% 3PT) while the Hornets chipped away at the lead and eventually built their own advantage. That turned the final period into a grinding mess. The Rockets shot 31.3 percent and the Hornets countered with a 33.3 percent effort from the field as only 13 of 40 total attempts found the bottom of the net. Houston only scored 12 points in the paint during the second half, but they fought for free throw attempts and made up the difference from the line.
Houston started to show its desperation at the end of regulation. First it aggressively trapped Eric Gordon in pick-and-roll, which opened up space for Gustavo Ayon to hit a big-time jumper from the right elbow that gave the Hornets an 87-86 lead with 41.4 seconds in regulation. Then Budinger missed a contested corner three and set off a volleyball sequence where Grieves Vasquez came down with the potentially clinching rebound, but Courtney Lee swooped in behind him and stole the ball during the chaos.
For reasons beyond comprehension, Belinelli fouled Lee in response to that play and put the Rockets SG on the line with a chance to take the lead. Lee tragically split the pair of freebies and Eric Gordon barely missed an isolation jumper at the buzzer, so the game moved into overtime.
In extra time, Carl Landry worked the baseline and paid off solid ball movement with swift finishes at the rim. Ayon fed him twice and then Al-Farouq Aminu fed him for a joyous dunk that gave New Orleans a 98-90 lead with 50 seconds on the clock. From there Houston executed the chase-and-foul offense and robbed the Rockets of any hope for a comeback. Goran Dragic put in eight of the team's 12 points in overtime, but his 3-4 shooting took a backseat to the 2-8 clunker by his teammates. Kevin McHale tried a timeout at one point, but even that couldn't pull the team out of a funk.
Dragic posted a respectable line of 23 points and eight assists in the loss, and Budinger added 22 points and six rebounds, but Eric Gordon (27 points, 9-18 FGs, 5-8 3PT, 8-10 FTs, five assists) and Carl Landry (20 points, 9-13 FGs, 10 rebounds) simply did more.
To add insult to injury, the Phoenix Suns knocked off the LA Clippers in the late game and pushed Houston one game back of the eighth seed (but really two, because the Suns own the tiebreak) with three games to play.
For all of Thursday's NBA box scores, check out SI.com's NBA scoreboard.