Holy cow, what a game. Denver's hoping to catch the Lakers for the West's top spot, while the Rockets are in "one game at a time" mode, praying to sneak in as the eighth seed. Everything was high octane.
John Hollinger's Playoff Odds give the Rockets a 4.9 percent chance of making the playoffs, and there were moments of this game where victory seemed about as attainable.
Things appeared a little hopeless for Houston; for instance, when they were down 11 points about three minutes into the fourth quarter and suddenly seemed unable to make a field goal. If you ignore a goaltend, their first real bucket of the fourth quarter came with 8:33 left.
I also felt it might have been Denver's game when the Rockets were up five and Trevor Ariza did a Ron Artest maneuver: Having not done much to help his team for a spell, he decided to "pitch in" by taking an ill-advised shot. With his team down five and less than a minute-and-a-half to go, Ariza clearly felt he had to earn his contract. Instead of running the offense, he nearly turned the ball over, then pulled up for the 3 that Carmelo Anthony invited him to take. He's a 32 percent 3-point shooter, and most players shoot that shot better off the catch or when they're wide open, not on the move and off the dribble. As the ball was airborne, the Nuggets must have felt good. But fortune smiled on the Rockets in this game, as they hope it will in the playoff hunt.
The highlights demonstrate the mastery of high-scorers Aaron Brooks and Carmelo Anthony (although they miss his best play, when he took every inch the defense gave and dunked to tie the game before Houston's game-winner) in this game. But there were other stories. Consider a series of Denver defensive miscues, including one that led to a Luis Scola three-point play in the final minute. And the game's many other heroes:
I don't know if there's such a thing as a defensive player getting "in the zone." But if there is, Anthony Carter was there early in the fourth quarter. With the Nuggets up five, Carter stole the ball from Brooks, blocked Scola from behind and poked the ball away from Kevin Martin. Remember, forced turnovers like that are far rarer than made shots -- three shots in quick succession is considered tremendous. Three live-ball turnovers ... that's ridiculous. All the while, Carmelo Anthony kept scoring, and the Nuggets built a lead that it seemed they might never relinquish. Eventually, the Nuggets cooled off, Chauncey Billups returned for Carter and the Rockets snuck back into the game. Carter sat through the meat of the fourth quarter, coming off the bench only to check Brooks on the final play after Billups fouled out. As I watched, I thought to myself: I bet Carter has a good plus/minus in this game, and sure enough, he led the Nuggets at plus-eight.
With about 35 seconds left in a game the Rockets led by two, Nene got great position in the lane against Scola. But he missed the shot and there was a scramble for the rebound. Nene was there, but it was mainly Scola and J.R. Smith. Scola, however, left no doubt that he wanted it more than anybody, and came up with the biggest board of the game.
Just as the Nuggets had a productive guard on the bench in crunch time, so did the Rockets. The Rockets essentially couldn't score at all for a period. Then Scola broke the ice, and Shane Battier got his first points of the game on two quick, huge 3-pointers. Then the Nuggets adjusted to Battier, and the Rockets looked lost for a moment, until Kyle Lowry went to work. Lowry is as tenacious a player as there is in the NBA, and in addition to hounding Billups on defense, he powered his way to the rim for two straight buckets to reinvigorate the Rocket offense, and keep the Nuggets within shouting distance. Brooks replaced Lowry with about four minutes left and keyed the win, but credit Lowry with making big plays at both ends, while keeping Brooks fresh for crunch time.