HOUSTON -- Having spent the first three seasons of his ascending career with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Houston Rockets guard James Harden has grown accustomed to the vibrancy of playoff-intensity basketball, the kind that pulsated throughout Toyota Center on Sunday night.
Knowing how to deal with high stakes played a role as Harden calmly drilled a 15-foot jumper with 4.5 seconds left, lifting the Rockets to a white-knuckle, 96-95 victory over the San Antonio Spurs.
After making the inbounds pass to center Omer Asik, Harden immediately received the ball back from Asik, worked around his screen and sank the shot that pushed the Rockets ahead.
With Houston four years removed from its last postseason appearance, the taste of success under extreme duress was just what the youthful Rockets need. Houston pulled within a half-game of the idle Golden State Warriors for sixth place in the Western Conference standings.
The Rockets (39-31) now hold a five-game edge over the Utah Jazz and Dallas Mavericks, who are tied for ninth place, just out of playoff position.
"If we're going to make the playoffs, (we've) got to get used to it," Harden said of the raucous atmosphere. "Tonight was a great environment, a great crowd. Hopefully we can continue to build off this lead (in the standings) and this momentum a little bit."
Spurs forward Tim Duncan missed a fade-away jumper before Manu Ginobili misfired on an attempt just prior to the buzzer as the Rockets averted a four-game season sweep at the hands of their in-state rivals.
"More or less it was the way (Spurs) coach (Gregg Popovich) drew up the play," Duncan said. "They defended the play well, and Manu wasn't open and I took the shot that was there, but I got a little more air under it."
Harden finished with 29 points, nine rebounds and six assists.
Spurs guard Tony Parker scored 12 consecutive points during one stretch to help erase what was once an eight-point deficit in the fourth quarter. Houston went six-plus minutes without a basket and fell into a four-point hole before its defense, which carried the team all night, responded.
The Rockets reversed the tide when reserve guard Patrick Beverely, a two-way force in the first half, blocked Danny Green at the rim and turned that defensive gem into a Chandler Parsons 3-pointer that cut the deficit to 93-92 with 1:19 to play. Parsons had scored the previous Houston basket on a put-back for an 87-79 lead with 7:27 left.
"I think he hurt us," Popovich said of Beverley, who finished with 11 points. "He's a tough kid, a good on-ball defender, and he adds something offensively, too. I thought he was a factor in the game without any doubt."
Parker scored 12 of his team-high 23 points in the fourth quarter. Duncan added 17 points and seven rebounds for the Spurs (53-17), who were outscored in the paint, in transition, and in second-chance points.
The Spurs torched the Rockets' defense in three earlier victories, averaging 123.3 points while posting improving effective field-goal percentages during each triumph. However, from the outset in the series finale, the Rockets were primed for the challenge of defending San Antonio, holding the Spurs to 42.3 percent shooting on the night.
San Antonio bottled up Harden early, as he missed seven of nine attempts in the first half. The Rockets managed to offset their own woeful shooting -- Houston shot 40 percent prior to intermission -- by attacking the offensive glass, turning eight offensive rebounds into 10 second-chance points by the break. The Spurs led 46-43 at the half, but neither team managed a double-digit lead as momentum swung back and forth.
Asik was instrumental to the Rockets' success on the glass, corralling a game-high 14 rebounds. He also met the challenge of defending Duncan alone headlong. Asik thwarted Duncan at the rim twice, and he served as the foundation for the Rockets' improved and inspired defense. Duncan needed 18 shots to score his 17 points as Asik labored tirelessly.
"I'm just trying to stop as much as I can," Asik said. "That (solo coverage on Duncan) was our game plan. We tried to stop him."
NOTES: With the Denver Nuggets, Los Angeles Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies separated by one game in the race for third and fourth place in the Western Conference, Popovich offered perspective on the value of home-court advantage. "Teams that win championships win on the road," Popovich said. "Nobody would give away home court, but if you're the best team, it's not necessary." To wit, four of the past seven NBA champions clinched the title on the road, including the Spurs in 2007. ... With the regular season winding the down and a postseason berth coming into view, Rockets coach Kevin McHale would like to lessen the minutes load on Harden and Parsons, who rank ninth (2,572) and 18th (2,461), respectively, in the NBA. Of course, since Harden is 23 years old and Parsons is 24, there is some conflict on just how much rest they require. "You fight with getting them out sometimes and trying to get them some rest," McHale said. "Part of me does say on that given night, 'Well, they're young. They'll be OK.'"