SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP)—If the Sacramento Kings were in the Eastern Conference, they would be in the thick of the playoff race with huge meaning in every game. In the power-packed West, they have long been eliminated and must take solace in playing the role of spoiler.
“It’s nice that we can play a role in the Western Conference,” coach Reggie Theus said. “The guys understand we have a role to play. If our role is to muck it up, that’s what we’ll do. It gives us something to play for and it’s a big win for us down the stretch.”
The Rockets (49-25) fell 2 1/2 games behind New Orleans and San Antonio in the division race with only eight games remaining, hurting their chances of hosting a first-round playoff series.
Tracy McGrady scored 32 to lead Houston, but missed a jumper at the buzzer that would have won it. The Rockets have lost five of eight since a franchise-record, 22-game winning streak.
“It’s tough. You lose a game like this and you don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Rockets coach Rick Adelman, who fell to 0-2 at Arco Arena since being let go by the Kings in 2006. “That is why it is tough for all the teams in the West. This was a brutal loss.”
The Kings (34-40) surpassed last season’s win total with the victory, the first time they have improved since going from 55 wins to 61 in 2001-02. That season under Adelman ended with a trip to the Western Conference finals. This will be the second straight season with no playoffs in Sacramento after Adelman left town.
“At this time if you’re not in the playoffs, teams usually play relaxed,” Artest said. “At least when teams come in here they have something to play for. That’s the good thing about being in the Western Conference. We still can prepare for next year and take this game experience, especially for the young guys.”
Both teams both got off to a slow start to the final quarter, with Houston missing its first 10 shots of the period and Sacramento misfiring on its first five. Rafer Alston broke the drought when he hit an open 3-pointer that gave the Rockets an 83-81 lead with 6:25 left in the game.
The Kings’ first basket of the quarter didn’t come until Martin scored on a drive with 4:35 remaining to cut the Rockets’ lead to 87-86. Sacramento took a 94-93 lead when Francisco Garcia went in for a flying one-handed dunk on a breakaway. He was fouled by Shane Battier on the play but missed the free throw.
Battier answered with a 3-pointer he banked in from straightaway as the shot clock expired to put Houston up two with just over 2 minutes remaining, but then Artest hit a 3-pointer to put Sacramento back on top.
After two free throws from Luis Scola gave Houston the lead, Martin made a pair of his own with 48.9 seconds remaining to make it 99-98. The Kings got a chance to extend the lead but Artest turned the ball over with an errant alley-oop pass to Mikki Moore.
“Before you ask, that is not the play we drew up,” Theus said.
Artest took the blame for the play but it didn’t end up hurting the Kings. The Rockets took the ball downcourt without a timeout and McGrady missed the 17-foot baseline jumper at the buzzer.
“We didn’t want to stop the game so they could set their defense,” McGrady said. “So we got a good look. Unfortunately it didn’t fall for us.”
Scola finished with 20 points and Alston had 18 for the Rockets, who lost despite having 21 offensive rebounds to just four for Sacramento.
The Kings scored the final seven points of the third quarter to take a 77-76 lead, getting a fortunate bounce on a 3-pointer by Artest and a last-second jumper by Artest to take the lead heading into the fourth. Artest also hit a shot with 0.1 seconds remaining in the first half for Sacramento.
Kings center Brad Miller was ejected with 7:21 remaining in the third quarter when official Scott Wall gave him back-to-back technicals for arguing a no-call.
Houston C Dikembe Mutombo got a technical foul in the first quarter for waving his finger after blocking Artest’s shot. Mutombo thought he waved it at the crowd, which is legal, but Wall ruled it was taunting. … Kings backup C Spencer Hawes missed the game with a twisted left ankle.