A desperate Phoenix Suns squad threw everything it could at the Houston Rockets, but center Jermaine O’Neal made one mistake after the final shot was hoisted to hand Houston the 101-98 victory over Phoenix Tuesday night.
O’Neal committed a goaltending violation, touching the ball as James Harden’s last-second 3-point attempt made contact with the rim and remained inside the cylinder, to give the Rockets the win. Harden led all scorers with 33 points to go with six rebounds, six assists and a season-high nine turnovers.
Omer Asik matched his career high of 22 rebounds for the Rockets (44-34), who clinched their first playoff berth since the 2008-09 season. The spot was wrapped up after the Utah Jazz fell to the Oklahoma City Thunder less than an hour after O’Neal’s blunder.
Luis Scola (28 points, eight boards) delivered a valiant performance in the loss for the Suns (23-55), who have dropped 10 consecutive games overall and seven straight on the road. Phoenix guard Goran Dragicfinished with 15 points, 10 assist and four steals, while Markieff Morris scored 11 points and snatched nine boards.
QUOTABLE: “I knew it for sure.”
— James Harden on whether he immediately thought O’Neal committed goaltending as his 3-point attempt was hovering over the basket
QUOTABLE II: “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 trip it in. … I’ve never seen a game finish in a weirder way.”
— Jermaine O’Neal, who is in his 17th season, on his interpretation of the final play
QUOTABLE III: “O’Neal touched [the ball] 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.”
— Referee David Jones on why he and his fellow officials ruled that O’Neal committed a violation
THE STAT: With Tuesday’s defeat, the Suns secured their worst season in terms of win-loss record since the franchise’s expansion campaign in 1968-69. Apart from that team, which posted a 16-66 record, no Phoenix group had suffered more than 54 defeats in a regular season.
TURNING POINT: With the Suns leading 98-96 with less than a minute to play, Houston forward Francisco Garcia chased down his own rebound off a missed 3-point attempt to preserve the Rockets’ possession.Jeremy Lin capped the possession by driving to the hoop, drawing a foul on O’Neal and burying a pair of free-throw attempts to even the score at 98. Scola had a step on his defender, Greg Smith, on Phoenix’s next possession but his layup attempt drew only iron. That set the stage for O’Neal to commit the pivotal error that blew the Suns’ chance to end their worst slide since 1996-97.
QUOTABLE IV: “I’m going to be really excited, because I’m going to be able to [actually play in the playoffs] this year. It will be my first taste. I actually didn’t think I’d be excited … but now that it’s actually here, I’m actually really excited because no one really gave us a chance going into this season.”
— Jeremy Lin, who was injured during the Knicks’ postseason run last year, on his reaction to Houston’s playoff berth
HOT: Three former Rockets — Dragic, Marcus Morris and Scola — burned their former team with stand-out performances. The trio combined for 54 points on 60.5 percent (23-for-38) shooting, 17 rebounds, 12 assists, six steals and three blocks.
NOT: The long ball certainly was not falling often for the Rockets, who shot a dismal 20.0 percent (6-for-30) from behind the arc. If not for Harden’s controversial game-winner, Houston would have set a season-low in 3-point percentage.
BAD MOVE: The Rockets were careless with the ball in the second period, committing five turnovers in a nine-possession span to allow Phoenix to trim a double-digit deficit to two. That period of dysfunction for Houston helped build the Suns’ confidence and seemed to springboard Phoenix through the rest of the contest.
GOOD MOVE: The Suns continually dumped the ball down to the veteran Scola down the stretch and watched him tear apart rookie Terrence Jones with his assortment of post moves. The 6-foot-9 forward from Argentina netted 11 points over the final 9:20 of regulation, although he failed to knock down his most important field-goal attempt when matched up against Smith in the final minute.
QUOTABLE V: “We did an excellent job in just about every aspect of the game. … We did everything in our power to come out with a win, and unfortunately, sometimes you don’t.”
— Phoenix coach Lindsey Hunter
NOTABLE: The Suns’ Michael Beasley did not play after returning to Phoenix earlier in the day to be with his newborn daughter. … The Rockets played without starting forward Chandler Parsons (strained right calf) for the third consecutive contest. … Reserve wing Carlos Delfino (flu-like symptoms) sat out for the fourth game in a row. Houston is still listing both players as day-to-day, and the pair could return in time for Friday’s matchup with Memphis. … In an error-prone game, the two clubs combined to allow 31 points off 37 turnovers. … Dragic’s 12 outings with at least 10 assists since the All-Star break are the most in the NBA. … The Rockets have won 14 of their last 17 home games. … Houston improved to 18-4 this season when it commits fewer turnovers than its opponent. … Phoenix fell to 7-31 overall on the road this season and 2-24 on the road when it allows at least 100 points.