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Well Worth The Wait

April 10, 2013 2:43 am EDT

Rockets' patience pays off as club clinches first playoff berth since 2009

HOUSTON - Having waited more than three years to book their return trip to the playoffs, the Rockets didn’t mind waiting an extra minute at the end of regulation to find out whether or not they had secured the win they likely needed to get them back to the postseason. Nor was it too terribly troubling to sit around an extra half hour after their victory to see Utah fall to Oklahoma City, making Houston’s playoff return official. Tuesday evening was so many things for the Rockets – thrilling, terrifying, wild, wacky and, ultimately, blissful relief. But inconvenient? Never. Given the ultimate outcome and the amount of blood, sweat, tears and time it took to achieve, the Rockets surely would have waited as long as it took in order to see that playoff-clinching ‘X’ by their name in the standings.

To be sure, it happened in a most improbable way: game tied, seconds melting away in a game that had seen Houston play with fire throughout. Only, go figure, it was the Suns who got burned when Jermaine O’Neal tapped away James Harden’s buzzer-beating three-point attempt while the ball was still bouncing above the cylinder. An officials’ review was needed to confirm the call but the evidence was clear. The basket counted. The Rockets won 101-98. And 30 minutes later Houston had officially punched its ticket back to the playoffs for the first time since 2009.

What a way to cap a most remarkable journey. Harden kick-starting the season by summoning shades of Jordan. Omer Asik doubling as an indispensible, rebound-devouring defensive rock. Chandler Parsons emphatically proving that he is no one-year wonder, but rather a wonderful, implacable peach of a player who absolutely belongs on the big stage. Jeremy Lin surviving amid a rough start before ultimately thriving and playing his best basketball when the games matter most. Carlos Delfino’s invaluable savvy, shooting and smarts. Greg Smith’s unassailable accuracy around the rim. Patrick Beverley’s “From Russia With Love” arrival that brought with it the sort of boundless, infectious energy that any Bond fanboy would love.  And on and on it’s gone.

In so many ways, this club has collectively defied expectation and convention. So much so, in fact, that is has become not just a Houston calling card but part of its appeal and ethos as well. The kids grew up quickly. They played faster still. And now, here they are, about 10 days away from a playoff debut many hoops aficionados doubted they’d be making this season.

“We’re all going to be excited,” said Harden, mere minutes before Houston’s postseason inclusion had been made official. “Obviously with how young we are, it shows how far we’ve come. For it to be our first year together and be in the playoffs … it’s a great accomplishment for us as a team. We know we have a long way to go but for our first year together, it’s a pretty good thing.”

Having spent his summer playing in the NBA Finals and winning Olympic gold, Harden knows as well as anyone that Tuesday’s accomplishment is just a step, albeit a significant one, in the Rockets’ ultimate quest to return to title contention and hang more banners from the Toyota Center ceiling. He was a huge part of Oklahoma City’s ascent that began in earnest three years ago when the Thunder got their first taste of postseason play. He saw firsthand how that experienced hardened his teammates and strengthened their resolve to climb ever higher.

That same opportunity now lies just ahead on the horizon for Houston. The Rockets' ride to reach this point has been long, occasionally bumpy and filled with more than its fair share of thrills and spills. There were undoubtedly times when the drive seemed interminable. But to see the view before them now? Oh yes, you better believe the wait was worth it.

QUOTES

KEVIN MCHALE

On being in a game that ended on a goal tend) “I tell you what, I'll have to think a long, long time before it got to that. That was a crazy ending.”

(On the game tonight) “We got a goal tending call. We got a couple of stops when we finally needed them. (Luis) Scola was really going to work on us down there. But you know, Scola is a crafty vet. We had a hard time stopping him and then we missed layups. We had wide open threes. We were 6 for 30 from the 3-point line. It's kind of one of those nights where it was kind of a dog fight all night long for us. It just didn't feel like we could get any rhythm. We had a good rhythm early I should say and then all of a sudden we kind of lost that in the second quarter and from that point on we never found any rhythm. We just found a way to grind out a game and that’s just what we did.”

(On Terrence Jones performance off the bench) “I thought Terrence did a nice job and not having Carlos (Delfino) and Chandler (Parsons). Our small line up, which we throw out there to make teams chase us a little bit, we couldn't do it. We kind of had to stay big and I thought Terrence Jones did some good stuff. You can’t expect Terrence to go out there and have all the nuances of a 10-year vet, so he had times where he got caught on stuff but that’s how you learn. I thought Terrence did some good stuff for us.”

(On Patrick Beverley's play) “He's up into you, he’s aggressive. He just makes things happen. Its just one of those things where he’s just going to be an irritant to everybody because he's just constantly up in your grill. He had a big steal when we needed it off (Kendall) Marshall and got a layup. Like I said, we made enough plays to win. Certainly that’s not how we envisioned playing but I thought Patrick had good minutes, I thought Terrence had good minutes and I thought Omer (Asik) rebounded fantastically.”

(On James Harden's minutes) “James played a lot of minutes today. I would like to not play him that many minutes for sure, that's too many for sure. Coming down the stretch, he's a young fella.”

(On calling timeout at the end) “If we get the ball to James (Harden) we're going to run the same play no matter what. We're going to flatten it out and let him play.

They (Suns) came up, Cisco (Francisco Garcia) picked it up, so if we didn't have anything, we just call a timeout.”

(On watching the Thunder and Jazz game) “I imagine I will. I’ve always been this way, you worry about yourself. I have no control over that.”

JEREMY LIN

(on clinching playoff spot) I’m going to be really excited because I’ll be able to play in them this year so it will be my first taste.

I actually didn’t think I’d be excited because I was like, ‘Oh yeah, we’re going for the 6-seed’ but now that it’s actually here I’m actually really excited because no one really gave us a chance going into the season that we’d be in the playoffs. I’m learning not to take anything for granted. Being able to be in this position, to be with this team, and to be able to be in the playoffs – we haven’t done it as a franchise in a few years. 

(On the win) “We won and we will take it any day of the week. Definitely one of our uglier wins. Definitely a lot to work on. I think we were sluggish. I don't think we ha d the urgency of a team trying to make the playoffs, the desperation and hopefully we will do a lot better job of that (Friday).”

(On the Rockets ball movement) “We didn't hit shots the way we normally do but that’s going to happen. But the good thing is we were able to grind it out and get a win. We were able to get some stops down the stretch, big rebounds and we were able to pull it out. I'm pretty happy right now.”

FRANCISCO GARCIA

(On the last play of the game) “Man it was beautiful. I’ve never seen anything like that. I couldn't really see it right but I think when it(ball) was coming down and hit the rim, he (Jermaine O’Neal) kind of pushed it out. So he's got to let the ball go when it was on the rim but I will take it.”

(On the importance on the win playing short handed without Chandler Parsons) “Now we're getting everybody back. CP (Chandler Parsons) will probably be back next game. Carlos (Delfino) will be back next game. We're getting all of our guys ready for the playoffs. We're happy about the way we are playing and the coaches are happy and we've just got to keep playing together, defensively and offensively.”

JAMES HARDEN

(on making the playoffs) We’re all going to be excited. Obviously with how young we are, it shows how far we’ve come. For it to be our first year together and be in the playoffs … it’s a great accomplishment for us as a team. We know we have a long way to go but for our first year together, it’s a pretty good thing.

(similar to your first year in OKC or different since you’ve been to the Finals and won Olympic gold?) It’s similar. We had to build our way up. (In OKC) we just weren’t a very good team. It took us three years from being an 8-seed my rookie year to getting to the Finals. So this is a stepping-stone for us to be in the playoffs. Hopefully we can learn from it. Every game is going to be a tough game.

(On if he's ever seen a win like that) “No, it’s the first time but it happened so I'm happy, I'm happy for us.”

(On the last shot) “It actually felt good leaving my hand and then the ball bounced up and I kept looking at it. It looked like it was going to drop right in, but I seen his hand touch the ball so I was kind of happy. I knew for sure it was goaltending.”

(On the play of Terrence Jones) “The last week and week and a half he's been playing and been getting minutes and taking advantage of them in a positive way. (He's) rebounding the basketball, catching and finishing, playing defense, blocking shots, just doing whatever it takes to win. That’s the type of play we need from a lot of guys on this team in order to be successful.”

GREG SMITH

(On the ending of the game) “It was crazy. I’ve never seen it before in my life. Luckily in the last defensive possession against (Luis) Scola he missed it and when I got the rebound I was very thankful. James (Harden) had that pull up three and it looked good, he missed it and I think Jermaine O’Neal tried to jump up and hit it too soon. It was bizarre. I’ve never seen that before.”

(On the Rockets overcoming not very good ball movement) “We weren't passing the ball a lot. We weren't getting breaks, we weren't getting easy shots but as a team we knew that defense will win games for us. When offense is not clicking like today, our defense did a pretty good job of holding guys and containing all of their players. Luis (Scola) had a great game but we tried to hold everybody else down and that's what got us the win.”

OFFICIALS RESPONSE TO FINAL PLAY

DAVID JONES

(Specific description of what you saw on the replay regarding the last play) “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. The ball was on the rim and in the cylinder. He doesn’t go up through the net, his hand is on the net, but not in the net”

(Specific example of why the call was made) “The ball was in the cylinder and on the rim.”

PHOENIX SUNS COACH LINDSEY HUNTER

(On the game) “First thing is, out guys fought their hearts out. We did an excellent job in just about every aspect of the game. Everybody guarded (James) Harden, that played really well. We took care of the ball and (Luis) Scola had one of his best offensive games. Everybody that played contributed. I thought Kendall (Marshall) did a great job off the bench controlling the team when Goran (Dragic) wasn’t in. Marcus Morris did an excellent job defensively. Sometimes, you have to keep fighting your way until you figure it out and tonight was a great start for us, competitive wise. We did everything in our power to come out with a win, and unfortunately, sometimes you don’t.”

(On the referees call) “He said something. I’m not sure what. I’m not sure I didn’t interpret the rules right, but I’ll go look it up myself. The bottom line is, the call is it and that’s the end of it. I’m not going to cry over it. It happens. I saw the play, but evidently, I don’t understand the rules, so I have to go check it out and find out what it’s about. I don’t really want to harp on that. I was proud of our guys, we fought and up until the last second, we defended, we shared the basketball, and we played the way hopefully we’ll play in the future.”

(On P.J. Tucker’s defense) “He was phenomenal. He was absolutely phenomenal. We ask him to do a lot. Our point guards, twos, threes, sometimes fours. He comes out every night and just gets it done. It goes to show you, you don’t have to make shots or be something special. You just have to be willing to come out and lay it on the line every night. If our team continues to grow in that direction, we’ll be fine.”

 JERMAINE O’NEAL

(On the explanation the referees gave on the final play) “He said, ‘I guess the issue was they called goaltending before the replay and what they saw was the ball was in the cylinder, bounced, and came down again’ and I feel a guy next to me and I’m trying to knock the ball away. So that’s what they called goaltending. But I don’t know much about that rule. I felt the ball was outside the cylinder, so I just tried to knock it down and tried to swat it out so nobody else would try and tip it in. That’s what they called, but there are a lot of other calls that were quite questionable leading up to that. You put that play with the rest of the calls that they had, especially in the fourth (quarter) there were calls that I was not quite sure about. I’ve never seen a game finish in a weirder way (in 17 seasons).”

JARED DUDLEY

(On the Suns play) “It’s the best we’ve played in awhile. We played unselfish and we finally got stops in the second half, whereas in the first quarter, we really couldn’t get into our pace. We started pushing the tempo in the second half and started dictating how we wanted to play and we had a chance. I thought there was a bogus technical fouls that they didn’t need to call. They (the Rockets) attacked and made the refs make a call and then got to the line and made free throws. We had a chance to win it behind (Luis) Scola who is playing his best in coming back here to Houston. I’m glad he had the game winning shot, but it just didn’t go in and we came up short again. We can deal with these losses, it’s the blowout ones that we play selfish and don’t play together, and those are the ones that are frustrating.”

GORAN DRAGIC

(On the game) “They came back on our mistakes and we let them take the last shot and unfortunately, we made our goaltending. It’s always motivating when you play against your former teammates. I had a great year last year with the Houston Rockets and I’m grateful for what they did for me, but you go out and try and play basketball and try to win. Everybody likes to compete, even me, Luis (Scola) and Marcus (Morris) and we demonstrate and we just fell to short.”

LUIS SCOLA

(On his play) “I just wanted to play and have a good game and play hard. I want to try and finish the season strong. I always try to play hard and it was fun to be here. I remember a little bit of the old times, and it was special. I just wanted to play hard and I will try to play tomorrow. It was a moment when I had it going. I could run and when I run, I play better. I got a couple layups, and then everything else fell in place.”

(On the goaltending call) “I just wish they had let us play the overtime. I think it was coming off (the ball) but it was pretty close and if it’s close, they should have just let us play the overtime. It doesn’t matter. It’s over. I’m not going to put it on the ref, and I’m not going to complain. It wasn’t because of the refs we lost. We lost because we closed the game a little worse.”

NOTES

With the game knotted at 98-98, a goaltending was ruled on James Harden’s 3-point attempt as time expired to give the Rockets a dramatic 101-98 win over Phoenix. Houston’s victory coupled with Utah’s 90-80 loss to Oklahoma City tonight secures the Rockets a spot in the 2013 NBA Playoffs.

The Rockets, who are second in the NBA in points in the paint (3612, 46.3 ppg), have now averaged 54.4 points in the paint over their first five games this month (272 points in the paint in Apr. 2013).

Houston scored another 25 points off the break tonight. The Rockets now own a record of 22-10 when scoring 20-plus points off the break this season.

James Harden finished with 33 points (9-21 FG, 13-14 FT), six rebounds, six assists, three steals and one block tonight, which was his career single-season best 21st 30-point performance (Rockets record: 16-5).

Francisco Garcia recorded 15 points (6-13 FG, 3-10 3FG) in another start tonight, which matched his best scoring output since joining the Rockets. Garcia also came off the bench with 15 points (5-10 FG, 3-7 3FG) vs. the L.A. Clippers (3/30/13).

Omer Asik equaled his career-best 22 rebounds tonight, adding eight points (3-9 FG), two steals and two blocks. Asik has now registered 10 or more rebounds in 28 of his last 33 games. He originally posted a career-high 22 boards vs. Milwaukee (2/27/13). Asik becomes the first Rockets player to post at least two 20-rebound games in a single season since Charles Barkley had five in 1997-98.

Terrence Jones came off the bench with 11 points (5-8 FG) and six rebounds tonight. Jones has now reached double-figure scoring in three of the last four games (4/3/13-4/9/13).

Luis Scola topped four Suns in double-digit scoring with 28 points (12-20 FG) and eight rebounds tonight. Scola now has 51 double-digit scoring efforts in 78 games with the Suns, including 11 20-point performances this season.

Goran Dragic collected 15 points (6-10 FG), 10 assists and four steals tonight. Dragic now has 17 double-digit assist efforts on the season, including a league-leading 12 10-plus assist games since the All-Star Break.

Markieff Morris totaled 11 points (3-3 3FG) and a team-high nine rebounds tonight. It was his eighth time this season to lead the Suns in rebounding.