This time, it really seemed like they had them. Yet, as has become an unbreakable habit, the Rockets were unable to get stops when they needed them late in the game and fell, 105-102.
Like the Rockets have done in past games, they were quick to establish an early lead, scoring well in the first quarter. In an interesting development, Samuel Dalembert didn't make a fool out of himself on the offensive end, and he shut down the paint early on. On a night when the Rockets desperately needed an inside presence, Samuel Dalembert stepped up from the opening tip.
The jump shots continued to escape the Rockets, but by consistently attacking the rim and defending the Nuggets tenaciously, the Rockets controlled the game. The Nuggets shot under 35% for the first quarter and seemed hungover from the night before.
After the first, the Nuggets gradually sawed into the Rockets lead, finally taking it away with three minutes left in the third quarter. After a great first quarter of defending, the Rockets' close outs became non-existent, and the Nuggets teed off from behind the arc. The sad thing was that the Rockets were outscored by 8 and it was still their best third quarter performance in a week.
Going into the fourth down just one point, the Rockets were still in a position to win the game. And, for the first time in four games, the Rockets responded well enough to do so. Chandler Parsons made a pair of threes midway through the quarter, Luis Scola tipped in his own miss, and all of a sudden the Rockets had a five point lead.
Then, as they've done so consistently as of late, the Rockets forgot completely about the other team's scorers. Corey Brewer exploded for 11 points in the fourth (including a remarkable flop that led to three free throws), and even Al Harrington had 9 points when he wasn't taking hilarious turnaround three pointers.
With three minutes left, the Rockets maintained a one point lead. From there, Ty Lawson abused the Rockets, scoring on three of four possessions coming in. But the Rockets nearly kept pace, getting a shot to tie it inside of ten seconds. Luis Scola isolated with Al Harrington the post, but missed an open short-range jumper with less than five seconds left.
After a delay as the refs sorted out the out of bounds call (more on that later), the Rockets promptly fouled Arron Afflalo, who missed one of two to leave the Rockets 3.2 seconds to tie it all up. Unfortunately, Parsons' long range three pointer came up a bit short, and the Rockets had lost their fourth in a row.
With that, the Rockets fall out of the playoffs for the first time in months (barring a shocking 2nd half comeback by Portland), sitting at the 9th seed. To stay in the playoff hunt, the Rockets almost have to sweep the next five, though 4-1 could do it. With the team faltering, is that possible?
More thoughts after the jump!
1. Kevin McHale Does Not Trust Samuel Dalembert
In the first quarter, Samuel Dalembert played consistent defense, grabbed rebounds, and took care of the ball, propelling the Rockets to an eleven 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 good 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.
2. NBA Refs Are Silly
Everyone is sick and tired of hearing opposing fans whine about referees. I try to avoid it because most calls just cancel each other out in the end, but tonight's referees merit special attention for their ineptitude. First, Corey Brewer drew three free throws by falling down after shooting, then Danilo Gallinari got a charge call while doing the cha-cha slide with Patrick Patterson. As tough as those calls were to take as a Rockets' fan, they were split-second calls on subjective plays.
The plays that just made everyone's heads roll were a pair of out of bounds calls late in the fourth. Not once, but twice were the referees out of position as they saw the ball flying out of bounds, forcing them to call a jump ball. The second time, they had the benefit of replay to see that the ball had gone off of Parsons, but the first time was not inside of two minutes, and thus they missed a Nugget tipping the ball out.
There's no doubt that reffing an NBA game is a difficult job, but the league has to do something about the lack of consistency with officiating. I don't know if adding a fourth ref would change anything, but giving the option of replay in more situations has to be on the agenda for the off-season.
3. Chandler Parsons, Closer?
In another bizarre development to the Rockets' season, Chandler Parsons was the Rockets' most assertive player when the team needed someone to do so most. With the Rockets struggling to keep up with the Nuggets in the fourth, Parsons keyed a run with a pair of threes and a steal, leading to a five point lead. In the last three minutes, Parsons attacked the rim, got a pair of free throws, and followed them up with a jumper to bring the Rockets within one.
Parsons was drafted for his length, passing ability, and defense, yet he has impressed so much more as a scorer than anyone could've hoped or predicted. Tonight, he led the team with 21 points on 16 shots, and showed off a diverse arsenal of moves. Without him, who knows where the Rockets would be right now.
The Rockets play Dallas on Wednesday night for their lives. If you're in the area, get out and wear your red proudly!