(Note: This was written by Ben DuBose.)
The next time someone tells you that early-season games in sports like basketball and baseball don't matter, refer them to the case of the 2008-09 Houston Rockets.
The No. 5-seeded Rockets were one game from having a dream path to the Western Conference Finals, at a minimum. They were one game from a No. 2 seed, home-court advantage in the first and second rounds, a Southwest Division title, and most importantly, avoiding any possibility of playing the Lakers until the conference finals.
Instead, fate turned against the Rockets on Wednesday night, not just in their own game with Dallas but also with games in San Antonio and Portland. So, a team that was one game -- and in several situations -- one shot from having a division crown and a dream playoff path... won't even have home court in the first round.
No, the season isn't over. But the postseason is all about matchups. Even the famed 1993-94 championship team - the first major one in Houston sports history - benefited greatly from No. 8-seed Denver's historic upset of No. 1 Seattle in the first round. The Rockets, in those days, couldn't touch the swarming Sonics.
For the first round, this year's Rockets appear to have a good draw with No. 4 Portland, who they've beaten convincingly two out of three times. But it's the potential second-round confrontation with the No. 1 Lakers that's the issue. The Rockets were 0-4 against LA this season.
And it all could have been avoided. With one more win, anywhere on the schedule, the Rockets would have had home-court advantage against Portland. One more win against a division opponent or one more Spurs loss against a division opponent, and the Rockets win the Southwest and have the No. 2 seed.
Of course, as it's been for much of the Yao Ming-era, the Rockets couldn't get that extra break. Here's a rundown of this season's top five heartbreaks that could have changed it all:
(Honorable mention goes to the November 26 loss to the Pacers, December 29 loss to the Wizards, and January 28 loss to the Sixers. All three were losses by two points or less, at home, to bad-to-mediocre Eastern Conference teams. For a team 33-8 at home this season, that's just inexcusable.)
5. Mavs 95, Rockets 84 (April 15): The Rockets blew a 14-point second-half lead and a 5-point lead entering the fourth quarter, fumbling away the No. 2 overall seed and home court in each of the first two rounds. The dagger here was in the simplicity of the collapse. After all these years, the Rockets still have virtually no answer for when teams front Yao Ming. The ball movement became stagnant, and wings couldn't create off the dribble. (Ron Artest, for all his great qualities, might lose to Yao in a dribbling contest.) On the other end, Jason Terry continues to morph into Kobe Bryant whenever he sees a Houston jersey opposite him. It's a painful loss given the end result, but it's not nearly the worst. After all, beating a playoff team on the road in April is tough, as the Rockets may find out in Portland.
4. Bulls 105, Rockets 102 (February 28): This one ruined the era of good feeling. The Rockets had won six straight games since Tracy McGrady announced he was shutting it down for the season. The problems appeared to be fixed. The Rockets were taking care of business in Chicago against a mediocre Bulls team, up 99-82 with under six minutes remaining. Then, the Bulls outscored them, 23-3, down the stretch to steal a game they had no business even being in. Derrick Rose abused Aaron Brooks over and over again, while Artest seemingly forgot he had teammates to help on offense.
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3. Spurs 77, Rockets 75 (November 14): Up 14 with 7:30 to go, up 10 with 4:40 to go. Then, the Rockets, led by a classic McGrady seven-point performance on 2-of-12 shooting, couldn't score for the remainder of the game. Carl Landry left Matt Bonner completely uncovered for two treys. And the Spurs, who were missing their best fourth-quarter player in Manu Ginobili, came back all the way. It was said when McGrady went down in February that the Rockets would miss him most in close, half-court games in which they needed a "closer" from the perimeter. He had his chance at that role that night in San Antonio, and failed miserably. It ended up costing his team the division.
2. Spurs 102, Hornets 95, OT (April 15): This one didn't even involve the Rockets, but it's too heartbreaking not to list. Even with the Rockets' loss to Dallas, they still would have won the division and home court in the first round, so long as the Hornets beat the Spurs. The Hornets led for most of the second half and by seven in the final three minutes. With a two-point lead and eight seconds remaining, James Posey, an 82% foul shooter, had two free throws that could have ended it. Naturally, given the Rockets' luck, he hit 1-of-2. Even then, the task was simple. Up three in the final seconds - FOUL! The Spurs would shoot two free throws, and barring a bizarre offensive rebound and tip-in, they don't have a chance to tie the game, and it's over. But New Orleans coach Byron Scott opted not to do that, and Michael Finley, a whipping boy for Spurs' fans, hit his second buzzer-beating three in four days to send the game to overtime and drive a stake in the heart of the Rockets. Not fouling with a three-point lead remains the most logic-defying, ridiculous decision in sports.
1. Blazers 101, Rockets 99, OT (November 6): The Rockets, who now go on the road to Portland to start the playoffs, have played in the Rose Garden once before this season. Remember what happened? Yao converted an incredible three-point play with 0.8 seconds to play, giving the Rockets what should have been a big early-season road win. But, courtesy of yet another poor defensive effort by McGrady, Portland's Brandon Roy slipped open off the inbounds and sunk an off-balance, 30-foot three at the buzzer to win it. That's the biggest reason the Rockets play this weekend in the Rose Garden instead of the friendly confines of Toyota Center.
(For real-time Rockets' talk, go to twitter.com/BenDuBose )