Francis scored six points and came up with a key steal in overtime as the Rockets edged the Los Angeles Clippers, 118-114, to move into a tie with Phoenix for the eighth and final Western Conference playoff spot.
It was the Rockets’ third straight victory and ended a franchise-worst five-game losing streak to the Clippers. But it did not come without help from referee Jim Clark.
After Francis nailed a 3-pointer to tie the game, 104-104, with 13 seconds left in regulation, the Clippers called timeout. As Andre Miller dribbled near the top of the key, James Posey grabbed Miller’s right arm as he executed a spin move with 1.1 seconds left.
Miller sank his first free throw, but Clark disallowed it, caliming Miller stepped over the line. Television replays indicated Miller did not step over the line until after the ball had swished through the basket. Miller missed the second free throw, and the game went into overtime.
“He called it and that was the end of it,” interim Clippers coach Dennis Johnson said. “I don’t want to go that way. In every game you can complain about 20 calls. Did he step over the line? I don’t know. I’ll go back tonight and look at the tape.”
“It isn’t a miracle that it happened,” Francis said. “Things happen like that where guys step on the line and the next time they’re a little more nervous about the situation and he came up short on the (second) free throw.”
It was the second time in the contest that Miller had a free throw disallowed for stepping over the line. He had one wiped out with 4:33 left in the third quarter.
“I’m not talking,” Miller said. “No comment.”
“It wasn’t a violation,” Clippers center Sean Rooks said. “It’s always Andre. I guess he has a habit of falling over (the foul line) and they’re watching him. They’ve called it on him at least seven times. It’s obviously a habit of his they’re paying attention to. They line themselves up at the foul line to look for it.”
Francis made a tough shot in the paint to give Houston the lead for good, 108-106, with 3:07 left. The Rockets held a 110-108 lead when Glen Rice forced Lamar Odom to pass while attempting a jumper, and Francis stole the errant pass to Miller and fed the streaking Rice for a breakaway dunk with 34 seconds left.
“You could really see the confidence,” Rice said. “You could see it in each guy’s eye out there. It was like there was no way in the world that we were going to let this game get away. We’re fighting to get into the playoffs and we want to be playing our best basketball.”
Francis added a pair of free throws with 12 seconds to go that made it 114-108, and Los Angeles got no closer than 116-114 on a 3-pointer by Odom with 1.6 seconds to go.
Houston led, 96-92, after Cuttino Mobley made a jumper with 4:25 left. But the Clippers scored the game’s next nine points, taking a 101-96 lead on a free throw by Corey Maggette with 39 seconds to play.
Rice hit a long jumper and a 3-pointer around a free throw by Miller to make it 102-101 with 23 seconds left. After Cherokee Parks sank a pair from the line two seconds later, Francis tied it with his shot from the arc.
Rice scored a season-high 25 points, Francis added 25, Mobley 23 and Maurice Taylor 18 for Houston, which had not won three games in a row since January 11-17.
“This was one of the biggest wins of the year,” Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich said. “We got a great lift off the bench. Mo (Taylor) and Glen executed beautifully. We never gave up and didn’t get down and negative on ourselves.”
Rockets rookie Yao Ming, who finished with 10 points and 10 rebounds, briefly was matched up against Wang Zhizhi, a fellow product of the Chinese Basketball Association. Wang had eight points.
Maggette scored 29 points and Miller added 22 and 11 assists for the Clippers, who fell to 1-4 on their season-high six-game road trip.
“I don’t know what to say,” Maggette said. “Congrats to Houston.”
“We were relieved,” Tomjanovich said. “They’re a young team, always tough to play. Corey Maggette was on fire. They’re going to be a great team.”
Parks added a season-high 18 points and Odom 17 and a season-best 12 rebounds.
“I’ve never seen (a game decided on a lane violation on the shooter),” Parks said. “I don’t know who makes up our rules. It doesn’t have any impact on the game whatsoever. It’s a little technicality. I don’t think the fans care about that rule.”
Los Angeles, which has lost 10 of its last 11 contests, fell to 1-5 under Johnson.
Neither team led by more than seven points in the game, which featured 16 lead changes and 11 ties.
“It’s a tough way to lose a game, the way we played,” Odom said. “I thought we beat that team. Emotionally we were high. We haven’t played that well in a long time. We felt like we won that game. It happens. Hopefully, the referee will watch the tape.”