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Rockets clinch playoff berth and should thank the Clippers

HOUSTON -- The Houston Rockets have to thank one team for their playoff berth, clinched Wednesday night with a 116-81 victory over the depleted, emotionally spent, coach-about-to-get-fired Sacramento Kings.

When the Rockets start selling playoff tickets Thursday morning, the Los Angeles Clippers should get some tickets free of charge.

Everything changed in the Rockets' universe Friday night, going from bleak to hopeful. The Utah Jazz held a two-game lead over the Rockets for the eighth seed in the Western Conference. All the Jazz had to do was win to push the lead to three games.

Meanwhile, Houston appeared done. It suffered consecutive losses to Dallas and Phoenix, and hope was dwindling. The Carmelo Projections from FiveThirtyEight gave the Rockets a 45 percent chance. ESPN’s BPI gave Houston a 59.3 percent shot. The Rockets' locker room scene following losses to the Mavericks and Suns resembled a team getting ready for exit interviews.

“You have slip-ups like that,” James Harden said. “We don’t try to focus on what we were doing, just trying to focus on how we can get better, what can we improve individually and as a collective unit, and we did that.”

One constant theme from this team was to relax and hope something good would happen.

Last Friday night, Doc Rivers sat Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and J.J. Redick for the Clippers-Jazz game.

But Jamal Crawford hit a game-winning shot in overtime to lead the shorthanded Clippers past the Jazz, who lost their cushion and gave the Rockets an opening.

On Sunday, Houston beat Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers while Utah kept its one-game lead with an easy victory over Denver.

After the game, Harden asked Bryant for a little help. He needed the Lakers to beat the Jazz in the regular-season finale.

“With any situation any human being is in, when their back is against the wall, you’ll never know how strong you are until you have to be strong,” Patrick Beverley said. “That’s the position we were in and it made us play some of the best basketball we’ve played all season.”

The season changed Monday.

Dirk Nowitzki scored 22 points in leading Dallas past Utah, and the Rockets simply manhandled Minnesota, giving Houston and Utah identical records. But the Rockets possessed the tiebreaker.

“There was conversation about what was left and the opportunity that was still there,” interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff said. “At that point in time, you look at everybody else’s schedule and you start to see what they have in front of them and see if your goal is realistic. Our goal became to win three games in a row, something we thought we could do. We needed some help, Jamal Crawford gave a little help for us and the Mavs did, too. We took care of our business and we got a few assists.”

All that was left was beating Sacramento, which entered the game with just eight players and its coach, George Karl, dealing with reports he’ll be fired once the season is over.

If the Rockets beat the Kings, it wouldn’t matter what Bryant and his group did at Staples Center on Wednesday night.

Houston jumped out to a 10-0 lead and never had to worry. Harden was Harden, scoring 38 points, marking the 38th time he has scored 30 or more points in a game this season. Dwight Howard, who kept preaching for his team to relax and just play, added 14 points and 10 rebounds. Beverley was his normal disruptive self, scoring nine points and setting career highs in assists (12) and steals (six).

When Harden finished a three-point play with 7:15 to play in the fourth quarter, Bickerstaff emptied the bench, allowing the fans to give Harden a standing ovation.

Harden’s work in the past five games was fantastic; he averaged 33.6 points per game on 49.5 percent shooting from the floor.

So now the Rockets enter the postseason with that needed three-game win streak as underdogs against the defending champion Golden State Warriors in the opening round.

“Nobody is picking us to do anything,” Jason Terry said. “But I think we can do something special.”

This series between the Warriors and Rockets wouldn’t be happening if not for Crawford and the Clippers opening the door that Friday night in Salt Lake City.

“A lot of people wrote us off and thought we weren’t going to make the playoffs and here we are,” Harden said. “So, we’re going to take it one game at a time and we’re facing guys we played in the Western Conference finals and obviously they’re playing well and we are too."