"What a long strange trip it's been." -- The Grateful Dead
It is fitting in a season as crazy as this one that the young Rockets' road to the playoffs would ultimately come down to a game, a play and a call like the ones that occurred Tuesday night at Toyota Center. All season, the Rockets have done what young teams do: they play up and down, mostly up against good teams and mostly down against bad ones. Phoenix is a bad team. Early, the Rockets rolled up by 12 in the first half in what appeared to be another solid win, but former Rockets Luis Scola and Goran Dragic would not make it easy.
Finally, it came down to the last play of the game with the ball in the hands of James Harden. Named yesterday as the 8th best NBA player by ESPN, Harden held the ball until the last second with the game tied at 98. He let loose a long three-pointer that bounced high off the rim. Then, as it says in the cartoon above, "a miracle occurred." Jermaine O'Neal, the oldest guy on the court by a wide margin, inexplicably tipped the ball off the rim. The result was a goaltending call and a victory for the Rockets.
A few moments later, Utah lost to OKC and the Rockets clinched a playoff spot.
Maybe Rockets GM Daryl Morey summed it up best on Twitter:
— Daryl Morey (@dmorey) April 10, 2013
The path for this team has not been easy. It never is with young players. But what is so striking is the difference between this year's team and last.
Last year's Rockets were filled with gritty over-achievers, most of them middle-aged by NBA standards and none of them stars. They crumbled down the stretch despite being a near lock for the playoffs. This year, the roster is loaded with very young, athletic talent, much of it raw and undisciplined. Yet they seemed to get better and better as the season continued and could end up as high as 6th in the Western Conference playoffs.
In fact, despite making the playoffs, the Rockets still have a lot to play for. They can't make the six spot without help from the Warriors, and barring a complete collapse in the final four games, they are set as the seven seed. And there are arguments to be made that staying where they are is the better option.
Staying at seven, the Rockets will face either the Spurs or the Thunder, who both are fighting for first place and home court advantage throughout the western bracket of the playoffs -- the Heat have it sewn up through the championship series. They are two of the best teams in the league, but either would make an intriguing match-up for the Rockets. The Spurs represent the recent old guard against the Rockets' young bucks, nevermind they are in-state rivals. The Thunder mean Harden would face his former team.
Moving to six means an almost certain date with the Nuggets, one of the hottest teams in the league and a group that can run anyone out of the gym, particularly in the mile-high altitude of Denver.
No doubt, the Rockets will do whatever they can to move up, but if it were a choice between an old, injured Spurs team and playing in Denver, I might opt for the former.
Houston Chronicle beat writer Jonathan Feigen has a most interesting scenario for moving up:
If Rockets beat Kings and Suns, lose to Griz; and Warriors beat Blazers, Lakers,butlose to OKC and SA, Rox finale at LAL is for 6th place.
— Jonathan Feigen (@Jonathan_Feigen) April 10, 2013
Whatever the case, the Rockets now have the opportunity to gain some valuable playoff experience. It can only be a good thing for this young roster even if, as they will be predicted to do, they lose their first-round playoff series. But, you never know what will happen once they throw the ball up. In a wild season of ups and downs, perhaps another miracle will occur.