HOUSTON -- Considering the long odds of producing the best record among lottery teams for three consecutive seasons, it was only fitting that a bizarre finish ushered the Houston Rockets into the NBA playoffs.
With the Rockets one victory and one Utah Jazz loss away from their first postseason berth since the 2008-09 season, Phoenix Suns center Jermaine O'Neal lent a helping hand, literally, slapping a desperation James Harden 3-pointer off the rim as the final buzzer sounded. The goaltending violation gift-wrapped the Rockets' 101-98 victory Tuesday night at Toyota Center.
Roughly 45 minutes later, the Oklahoma City Thunder completed a 90-80 win over the Jazz in Salt Lake City, capping a most improbable season for the youngest team in the league relative to roster age and NBA experience. And while the Rockets (44-34) celebrated their accomplishment, they also reflected on the unusual end of their contest.
"I'll tell you what," Rockets coach Kevin McHale said. "I'll have to think a long, long time before it got to that. That was a crazy ending."
With the game tied at 98 and the Rockets initiating their final possession following a timeout with 9.1 seconds remaining, Harden turned an isolation play into a deep jumper just before the final horn.
The ball bounced off the rim and straight up into the air as the buzzer sounded and the red light illuminated behind the backboard. But as the ball landed softly back on the rim, O'Neal knocked it away before it could either fall through the net or harmlessly to the court below.
Almost immediately, Rockets guard Patrick Beverley signaled for a goaltending call, and the officiating crew of David Jones, Leroy Richardson and Haywoode Workman conferred. Their ruling came following a short video review, and the Rockets erupted in jubilation.
"The ball is shot by James Harden, and it was bouncing off the rim, bounced above the rim and came back down, and Jermaine O'Neal touched it while it was in the cylinder," Jones said. "The ball was on the rim and in the cylinder. (O'Neal) doesn't go up through the net, his hand is on the net, but not in the net."
Said Harden, whose second 3-pointer gave him 33 points to go with six rebounds and six assists: "It felt good leaving my hands. The ball bounced up, and I kept looking at it. It looked like it was going to drop right in, and I seen his hand touch the ball, so I kind of was happy.
"I knew for sure (it was goaltending)."
Former Rockets Luis Scola (28 points, eight rebounds), Goran Dragic (15 points, 10 assists) and Marcus Morris (11 points, five rebounds) kept the short-handed Suns (23-55) in the mix for an unlikely win. Instead Phoenix, missing center Marcin Gortat (right foot) and forward Michael Beasley (paternity leave) dropped its 10th consecutive game.
"First thing is, our guys fought their hearts out," Suns coach Lindsey Hunter said. "We did an excellent job in just about every aspect of the game. Everybody that guarded Harden played really well. We took care of the ball, and Scola had one of his best defensive games. Everybody that played contributed."
Following a frenetic third quarter in which the Rockets extended to an eight-point lead only to surrender the advantage as they did in the opening two periods, the Suns clawed back ahead with a 10-2 run, including back-to-back transition baskets from P.J. Tucker and Scola. Phoenix grabbed a 93-90 lead on a Scola 16-foot jumper with 3:54 remaining, forcing the Rockets to make a late push to victory.
Four Rockets joined Harden in double-figure scoring, while center Omer Asik paired eight points with a career-high-tying 22 boards.
"No one really gave us a chance going into the season that we'd really be in the playoffs," said Rockets guard Jeremy Lin, who had 13 points and six assists. "I'm learning not to take anything for granted. Being in this position, to be with this team and be able to be in the playoffs -- we haven't done it with this franchise in a while."
NOTES: Beasley returned to Phoenix to join his newborn daughter, his second child. The timetable for his return to the team was unknown. Beasley caused a stir when, after scoring 25 points and grabbing six rebounds in a loss to the Golden State Warriors last Friday, he said he would no longer listen to anyone offering instruction, coaches included. In his next game against the New Orleans Hornets, Beasley scored three points on 1-of-11 shooting from the field. ... The Rockets have been mediocre at best defensively for the bulk of the season, currently ranking 18th in the NBA in points-per-possession allowed at 1.064. But during a recent four-game winning streak, Houston allowed an average of 1.005 points per possession, well below the league average of 1.059. "We work on it every day. At some point, you hope that what you work on you get better at," McHale said. "And so we just do the same thing over and over and over again, and we are starting to get better at some simple rotations and stuff that we're asking them to do. We would do it on and off, but we're starting to get a little more consistent with it."