Monday night’s triple-overtime thriller in Salt Lake City simply was one of the best games of the season. It was a three-hour commercial for why League Pass is worth every penny and Exhibit A for why I walk away laughing when some fool tries to explain why the college game is better than the NBA.
We will get to that game in some detail. But the first matter of discussion is the Houston Rockets, whose late-season freefall gives North Korea’s space program an elite appearance.
Exactly one week ago, the Rockets were coming off a win at Portland that completed a 4-0 road trip and had them relatively comfortable in the Western Conference playoff race. Houston held the sixth seed and was entertaining ideas of catching fifth-seeded Memphis.
The four teams chasing the Rockets were Dallas, Denver, Phoenix and Utah, who comprised their next five foes. With three of its next four games at home, Houston was perfectly positioned to clinch a postseason berth.
But the Rockets lost at home to the Jazz. Then they lost at home to the Suns. Then they went to Denver on Sunday and lost to the Nuggets. And on Monday night, they returned to the Toyota Center for the finale of a home-and-home vs. the Nuggets and lost again, 105-102.
In each game, the Rockets lost to a team chasing them. In each game, they allowed more than 100 points. In each game, you could sense the throats getting drier and the palms getting sweatier.
From Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle: “Games like Monday’s can go either way. In the fourth quarter on Monday, Corey Brewer knocked down a fourth-quarter 3 and got a phantom call on another. (Al) Harrington went from 2 of 6 on 3s to hitting his next three 3-pointers. Ty Lawson knocked down the difference-maker. In other games, the Rockets hit the shots and got the breaks and the wins. Their problem was that in the previous three games, the Rockets did not give themselves that chance. They might not have realized it at the time, but their playoff hopes were on the line then, too. They fell behind Utah by 18, Phoenix by 16 and the Nuggets by 23. They rallied in the first two of those games, but they did not lose those games when the comebacks fell short. They lost because they put themselves in position to need those comebacks. That was clear then, but even clearer on Monday when the Rockets played with the desperation lacking last week. “I would feel somehow well if we would have played this type of game against Utah after the really good trip that we had, so that you get home with the feeling that, ‘OK, we lost, but we’re going to win games if we play this way,’ ” Luis Scola said. ”But right now it’s difficult because we just blew away our margin for error and the season is now four games shorter. Right now playing well and being close is not enough. We’re still there, it’s just painful because we lost four games in a row against teams who are right there behind or in front of us. It really hurts because we could have been clinching the playoffs right now today. Instead we are just seeing what’s going to happen with Phoenix to see if we’re going to get in the playoffs or not.”
The collapse by the Rockets over the last week has almost entirely changed the West’s playoff picture.
The Rockets (32-29) were sitting pretty at sixth; now they are ninth.
The Mavericks (34-28) were seventh, climbed to sixth and are back in seventh after two overtime losses.
The Nuggets (34-27) were clinging to eighth; they have won four of five and are now sixth.
The Suns (32-29) were ninth, lost two games, and still moved up to eighth because they hold the tiebreaker over the Rockets.
The Jazz (32-30) were 10th and have stayed there but have inched within a half-game of the final spot, thanks to a draining win over the Mavs that was as compelling as sports gets.
Utah led by nine points with five minutes to go but needed a buzzer tip-in to force overtime. Dallas led by four and trailed by four in the first OT, which Dirk Nowitzki ended with a tying 3-pointer. Neither team led by more than a bucket in the second OT, when fatigue became clearly visible among most players. And the awesome crowd at EnergySolutions Arena was still holding its collective breath as both Nowitzki and Jason Terry fired potential tying shots in the final seconds of the third OT.
From Kurt Kragthorpe of the Salt Lake Tribune: “The game that never should have lasted this long just may have extended the Jazz’s season into the playoffs. The Jazz’s battle with Dallas finally ended after 63 minutes of basketball and more than three hours of real time Monday night at EnergySolutions Arena. It all added up to a 123-121 triple-overtime victory that registers as the Jazz’s most meaningful win of the season — partly because it almost became their most devastating loss, potentially ending their season.”
And from Jody Genessy of the Deseret News: “On Monday morning, Al Jefferson was reminded that this is as close as he’s been to the playoffs for many years. “Thanks for pointing that out,” he joked. It took four wild quarters and three additional hard-fought overtimes, but Big Al and the Utah Jazz took a step even closer to earning a spot in the postseason once again. Jazz fans will thank him for that. The Jazz dug deep time and time again and finally got past the defending NBA champions later Monday night than anyone expected, outlasting the Dallas Mavericks for a 123-121 triple-OT victory at EnergySolutions Arena. “I tell you what,” Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin said, “the guys really did a great job, man, of just fighting through whatever was happening in the game, just making sure we gave ourselves a chance to win the game. We made timely plays.” It took all the Jazz had and all the timely plays they could muster to overcome Dirk Nowitzki and gang in this thriller, which had 63 basketball minutes of head-scratching and entertaining twists and turns.”
And from Dwain Price of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram: “In a game that, years from now, will long be remembered for its number of big shots made by both teams, the Utah Jazz finally ended Monday’s grueling drama by nipping the Dallas Mavericks in triple overtime, 123-121. “It was a fun game to be a part of,” said forward Dirk Nowitzki, who finished with 40 points, nine rebounds and six assists. “Both teams left it all out there and competed at a high level. Big plays and big shots on both ends of the floor, the crowd was into it, so you couldn’t ask for a better game.” About the only thing better the Mavs could have asked for was to come out victorious. Instead, the loss meant the Mavs ended this four-game road trip with a 2-2 record and also slipped from sixth to seventh place in the Western Conference standings with four games remaining.”
Perhaps Nowitzki chose to remember the journey rather than the destination because the defending champions still have a two-game lead over the Suns and Rockets, with reeling Houston visiting Dallas on Wednesday.
About the only contending team that needs a win as badly as the Rockets is the Philadelphia 76ers, who are still in full meltdown mode.
Coming off Friday’s inexcusable home loss to New Jersey, the 76ers caught a small break with the schedule. They had the weekend off before visiting the Orlando Magic, who were without Dwight Howard, Glen Davis and Hedo Turkoglu.
Facing a rotation that included Daniel Orton starting at center, Earl Clark playing 34 minutes off the bench and Von Wafer taking 13 minutes at shooting guard, the Sixers played next to no defense in a 113-100 loss that again dropped them into a tie for the seventh spot in the East with the New York Knicks, who own the tiebreaker.
Ryan Anderson became the latest power forward to outplay Elton Brand, going for 26 points and 16 rebounds. Clark piled on with 14 and 11, his first career double-double. No one could corral Jameer Nelson, who had 16 points and 13 assists.
Despite reaching triple digits, the issues continued at the offensive end as well. The scoring balance is serving no purpose as Philadelphia has had one player score more than 20 points in eight games this month.
The signs of panic continued as Thaddeus Young was moved into the starting lineup, with Elton Brand moving to center. And there was some open bickering on the court between Evan Turner and a couple of teammates.
From Bob Cooney of the Philadelphia Daily News: “With 7 minutes, 28 seconds left in the third quarter, Orlando Magic guard Jameer Nelson casually drove the lane and lofted a nifty lob pass to center Daniel Orton, who deposited an easy layup with nary a 76ers defender in sight. After the ball went through the basket, coach Doug Collins looked at assistant head coach Michael Curry and asked, “What do we do, coach?” It was that perplexing of a night. Before the game, the Sixers coach talked of his team’s need to negate the three-point shooting of the Magic, particularly Ryan Anderson. He even thrust Thaddeus Young into the starting lineup to be quicker against an Orlando team that was missing star Dwight Howard (back injury) and his backup, Glen “Big Baby” Davis (right knee sprain). Collins spoke of not allowing the Magic to control the backboards and making sure that on pick-and-rolls the shooter always be covered. He said all the right things before the game, but somewhere between his mouth and the basketball court, all seemed lost after the first quarter, and the severely shorthanded Magic laid a 113-100 loss Monday night on the Sixers, who dropped into a tie with the New York Knicks in the Eastern Conference. Both teams own 31-29 records, with the Knicks officially in seventh place, holding the tiebreak advantage, as they won two of three from the Sixers this season.”
The Sixers and Knicks have a two-game lead on Milwaukee. Philadelphia hosts Indiana on Tuesday and goes to Cleveland on Wednesday to complete a back-to-back-to-back.
- The host Suns trounced the Trail Blazers, 125-107, for their fourth win in six games and hold the eighth and final spot in the West on a tiebreaker. Phoenix’s frontcourt of Marcin Gortat, Channing Frye and Jared Dudley combined for 57 points on 24-of-34 shooting. Portland started J.J. Hickson, Joel Przybilla and Jonny Flynn, none of whom were on the team just over a month ago. TANK ALERT!
- There was movement at the top of the West as well as the Spurs took the No. 1 seed – by percentage points – with a 120-99 win at Golden State. San Antonio’s starters played 80 minutes, or one-third of the game, something to keep in mind as it makes its way to LA to meet the Lakers on Wednesday. The Warriors started four rookies – Jeremy Tyler and Mickell Gladness up front and Klay Thompson and Charles Jenkins in the backcourt. TANK ALERT!
- The Thunder surrendered the top spot in the West with a 92-77 road loss to the Clippers, who clinched their first playoff berth in six years. Much has been made about LA’s porous defense this season, but the Clippers shut down one of the most explosive offenses in the league. The Thunder managed 25 points in the second half, including just five by Kevin Durant and zero by Russell Westbrook.
- With Dwyane Wade given a night off, LeBron James again was pressed into closer duty and erupted to score Miami’s last 17 points over five minutes in a 101-98 victory at New Jersey, which was without Deron Williams and Gerald Wallace. TANK ALERT! The Heat did not lead until James scored with 51 seconds to play. James finished with 37 points and shot 15 free throws – one less than the Nets – and Chris Bosh had 22 and 15 rebounds. Kris Humphries scored 29 points for the Nets.
- The Heat gained a game on the East-leading Bulls, who held out injured All-Stars Derrick Rose and Luol Deng and uncharacteristically surrendered 30 points in the fourth quarter as they dropped an 87-84 home decision to the Wizards. Rip Hamilton and C.J. Watson missed potential tying 3-pointers in the last six seconds for the Bulls, who visit Charlotte on Wednesday before traveling to Miami on Thursday.
- The third-seeded Pacers rolled to their fifth straight win, clobbering the Timberwolves, 111-88, as David West led all five starters in double figures with 22 points. Indiana led 22-4, 55-23 and 64-30 at halftime. Kevin Love (concussion, neck strain) again sat out for Minnesota, which has lost 10 in a row overall and 26 straight in April dating to the 2009-10 season.
- The Hawks avenged Sunday night’s awful home loss to the Raptors with a predictable 109-87 win at Toronto that clinched their fifth straight playoff berth. Ivan Johnson scored a season-high 21 points off the bench and has scored 14 or more in four of his last five games. Atlanta, Orlando and Boston all are 36-25 with five games remaining. The Celtics host the Magic on Wednesday and visit the Hawks on Friday. Atlanta and Orlando – which also clinched – cannot be the fourth seed. But they can have home-court advantage in the first round if they finish fifth with a better record than Boston.
- The Bobcats set a franchise record with their 17th straight loss, a 75-67 home setback to the Hornets that looked everything like a meeting of the worst teams in each conference. The Hornets played without Eric Gordon and Chris Kaman – TANK ALERT! – shot 34 percent and still won their fourth straight game. Charlotte – which lost 16 in a row earlier this season – is assured of the league’s worst record and a 1-in-4 chance of landing Anthony Davis in the draft. The was one of the few remaining winnable games for the Bobcats, who entertain Sacramento on Sunday and visit Washington on Monday. If they lose the rest of their games, they will have the worst winning percentage in NBA history.