After allowing the Washington Wizards to claw all the way back from a 19-point deficit thanks in large part to a career 3-point-shooting night by Trevor Ariza, the Houston Rockets were able to escape with a victory and extend their NBA-best winning streak thanks in large part to a costly mistake by Washington's starting small forward.
A pair of John Wall free throws gave the Wizards a 112-110 lead with four seconds left in the fourth quarter and prompted Rockets coach Kevin McHale to call a timeout to advance the ball and draw up a play. Before forward Chandler Parsons triggered the inbounds, though, Ariza — who had gone a scorching 10 for 14 from 3-point land, becoming just the 18th player since the 1985-86 season with double-digit makes in a game — grabbed a hold of Rockets All-Star guard James Harden away from the ball, triggering a situation covered in Section X of Rule 12 of the NBA's rulebook:
During the last two minutes of the fourth period or overtime period(s) with the offensive team in possession of the ball, all personal fouls which are assessed against the defensive team prior to the ball being released on a throw-in and/or away-from-the-play, shall be administered as follows:
(1) A personal foul and team foul shall be assessed and one free throw attempt shall be awarded. The free throw may be attempted by any player in the game at the time the personal foul was committed.
Harden — who's shooting a career-best 85.4 percent from the foul line this year and was a perfect 15 for 15 from the stripe to that point on Wednesday — knocked down the freebie to make it 112-111, and give Houston the ball back on the sideline with a chance to win it. McHale went back to his top gun, and Harden made the Wizards pay:
Harden popped to the top of the key and found himself all alone on the catch — as Rockets site ClutchFans noted, Harden found himself so alone thanks to the combination of a sturdy Dwight Howard screen that jammed up Wall and Jeremy Lin stopped short rather than cutting all the way to the ball, keeping Wizards guard Bradley Beal tethered to him and away from Harden. But rather than pull up for the perimeter jumper, as we've seen him do in the past, Harden deferred to his default setting and attacked the basket.
Wall recovered and Wizards big man Kevin Seraphin stepped up to help, but Harden slithered through them using his patented Eurostep to get to the front of the rim and lofted in the layup to give Houston a 113-112 lead with 0.7 seconds remaining. A Seraphin jumper on the other end came up short, and the Rockets were free to head into the All-Star break on a league-leading seven-game winning streak that has drawn them within two games of the San Antonio Spurs for the lead in the Southwest Division, and would have them in line for home-court advantage over the fourth-seeded Los Angeles Clippers if the playoffs were to start tomorrow (Houston would get the lower seed because L.A. leads the Pacific, but the Rockets would get Games 1 and 7 at home because they've got the better record).
After finishing with a game-high 35 points on 8 for 14 shooting, a 3 for 6 mark from 3-point range and 16 for 16 at the stripe to go with six rebounds and six assists in 40 1/2 minutes, All-Star reserve Harden spoke about making the choice between hoisting a jumper or making a beeline for the basket.
"You know what, I just tried to be aggressive and trust my instincts," Harden said in a post-game chat with CSN Houston. "Whether it was an open shot or a layup, I had confidence in it."
Howard and Parsons sure seem to have a lot of confidence in their hirsute teammate, too:
Such fun friendz.
Howard added 24 points, 16 rebounds, three blocks and two steals, while Parsons scored 18 points, pulled down 12 boards and dished six assists for the Rockets, who improved to 36-17 with the win.
Ariza led the way with a season-high 32 points, 11 rebounds, three assists and three steals, and brought the Wizards back from an 18-point third-quarter deficit by making seven 3-pointers and scoring 21 points in the frame, but the late foul — his sixth, knocking the stout perimeter defender out of the game for the final possession — proved exceptionally costly for Randy Wittman's team. Wall, who will head to New Orleans as both an Eastern Conference reserve and a participant in the Sprite Slam Dunk Contest at All-Star Saturday, had 19 points, 14 assists and three steals for the heartbroken Wizards, who head into the break having lost two straight to fall to 25-27 on the season.
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