OKLAHOMA CITY – When you're hovering around the playoff threshold, like the Houston Rockets are this spring, every possession, every decision and every game seems like the end of the world.
Houston lost a winnable game Tuesday night to the Oklahoma City Thunder, 111-107, that pushed the Rockets to the eighth seed in the Western Conference, just a half-game ahead of Utah. The Jazz visit the Toyota Center on Wednesday, and the Rockets have to move on quickly from losses such as these.
"We did enough to win the game, like throughout the whole game, [but] down the stretch we kind of let the game slip away from us," Trevor Ariza said. "It's important, these are the teams that we're battling with, and these are the teams we could potentially see in the playoffs. We got to forget about this one and try to get one [Wednesday]."
In a close game in which their best player, James Harden, was playing through a sprained left ankle and conceded he didn't have the same explosiveness, the Rockets just couldn't coax themselves to an important late-season win.
Harden was still able to get a career-high 16 assists and the Rockets did force Russell Westbrook to work for every one of his 21 points. (He took 18 shots in doing so while acquiring another triple-double.) And Houston did lead 99-97 on a Patrick Beverley 3-pointer with 3:19 to play.
But everything just fell apart afterward.
Dwight Howard lost Steven Adams on an inbounds play; he was holding him until the refs told him to let go, and it led to a dunk that tied the score. Harden tried to force a pass to Donatas Motiejunas on the next possession, which Westbrook turned into a dunk and a two-point Thunder lead.
The momentum of that small lead was gone, and the Rockets were moved to playing desperate.
"These are like playoff games for us and luckily it's not the playoffs because [this loss] can change a series," Jason Terry said. "But the last two [games], I don't know what our efficiency is in the last two minutes of the games, but it's very poor. We just got to work on it, we have to work on it, we have time and we have to work on in-game situations and work on the time and score and what we need to get accomplished, who we're going to and then the execution part of it. That's on the players."
Houston had a chance to win or tie with 11.9 seconds to play, and interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff designed a play for Harden to have options: keep the ball or pass it for an open look.
The Thunder sent a double-team with Kevin Durant and Adams toward Harden, who made the right call to give it up. He sent a lob pass to Howard, left open when Adams went to double Harden. Dion Waiters left Terry open in the corner to contest the pass. Howard said he tried to secure it, but once Waiters defended it, he tried to tip it toward Terry.
"I threw it up for Big Fella to just go get it and hopefully make a play," Harden said. "He could lay it up or kick it out to Jet. It just didn't end up that way."
It's one of those plays you can scrutinize for hours. Bickerstaff said Harden made the correct play in moving the ball under pressure and Howard was correct to drive to the basket for a potential layup after seeing his teammate under duress.
At this stage of the season, the Rockets must improve at closing out games. While Houston made only 33 percent of its shots in the final two minutes against the Thunder, it had an overall fourth-quarter efficiency rating of 112.6. Problem is, the Rockets' defensive rating for the quarter was 124.1.
"We fought, we were there at the end," Bickerstaff said. "It was a two-point game. Jet makes a big 3 and we're there at the end and we just got to finish."
The Rockets, with their playoff hopes becoming more delicate with each loss, have to forget quickly.
It's almost like a baseball season: You have 162 games, one every night, so what happened on Tuesday means nothing on Wednesday.
That's the mentality the Rockets need right now. If they can't do it, then failing to reach the postseason after playing in the West finals last season would be considered embarrassing for everyone involved.
"We got to play well, bottom line," Bickerstaff said. "We got to play well every night. I thought we played well [Tuesday]. I thought we played well in [the loss to] Atlanta, we just had breakdowns in small stretches, [Wednesday] because of the tiebreaker and all those things has importance. But we need to play well and we believe if we play well we can beat anybody."