HOUSTON - Needing a victory to inch one step closer to their first postseason berth in four seasons, the Houston Rockets turned an improbable finish into a 101-98 win Tuesday night at Toyota Center.
Suns center Jermaine O'Neal was whistled for goaltending at the final buzzer after swiping James Harden's desperation 3-pointer off the rim. Officials reviewed the play because O'Neal touched the ball after the buzzer sounded, but the ball bounced high off the rim initially, meaning O'Neal negated any opportunity for the shot to nestle through the net.
Harden finished with 33 points, six rebounds and six assists while Rockets center Omer Asik added eight points to his career-high 22 rebounds. The Rockets (44-34) dropped their magic number to one game, and await the ending of the Oklahoma City Thunder-Utah Jazz game in Salt Lake City.
Fomer Rockets Luis Scola (28 points, eight rebounds) and Goran Dragic (15 points, 10 assists) kept the Suns (23-55) in the mix for an upset victory. Instead, Phoenix extended its losing skid to 10 games.
Following a frenetic third quarter in which the Rockets extended to an eight-point lead only to surrender the advantage like they did in the opening two period, the shorthanded Suns clawed back ahead with a 10-2 run, including back-to-back transition baskets from P.J. Tucker and Luis Scola. Phoenix grabbed a 93-90 lead on a Luis Scola 16-foot jumper with 3:54 left, forcing the Rockets to make one last push to victory.
The Rockets appeared intent upon capitalizing on the opportunity to ostensibly clinch a postseason berth, racing to a 12-point lead in the first quarter quite literally; their early transition offense was fantastic.
By the close of the first quarter the Rockets had already amassed a dozen fast-break points, and with Harden converting forays to the rim into free throws - he was 6-for-6 in the opening period - the Rockets' blueprint for success was apparent. But some late slippage enabled the Suns to creep back into contention, with Phoenix scoring six consecutive points bridging the first and second periods to cut into the deficit.
That Phoenix burst wasn't an anomaly. The Rockets' pace slackened in the second and the Suns took full advantage, turning a 38-28 deficit into a 51-47 lead with Scola, Marcus Morris and Wesley Johnson leading the charge. Houston made just one following a Jeremy Lin steal and layup at the 4:22 mark and Asik's dunk with four seconds left in the first half.
NOTES: Suns forward Michael Beasley returned to Phoenix to join his newborn daughter, his second child. A timetable for his return to the team is 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. Using game score as a metric, his effort against the Warriors was his eighth best this season. In his next game against the New Orleans Hornets, Beasley scored three points on 1-of-11 shooting from the field for a minus-5.2 game score, his second worst of 2012-13. ... 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," Rockets coach Kevin 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."