Everything lined up for the Rockets on Tuesday night. The Nuggets, on the road in Utah, lost. The Rockets were up 13 to start the third quarter. A win plus a Denver loss meant the team that was at the bottom of the Western Conference in November could climb to the second seed. Then, it all unraveled.
The Oklahoma City Thunder went on a furious run and James Harden missed a critical free throw (and an open look at the buzzer) leading to a 112-111 loss at OKC and a chance the Rockets could fall from a chance at the second seed all the way to fourth with wins by Portland (home for Sacramento) and Denver (home for Minnesota) tomorrow. If Denver loses, Rockets could still wind up second, but that's unlikely and they only wind up at number three if Portland loses, which is equally unlikely.
In the last game, the final quarter of the regular season, the Rockets couldn't close out, something that has plagued them throughout much of the season until the last month-plus when they were finally healthy. But, it might not be all bad.
The second seed quite possibly could have netted the Clippers as a first round matchup (or the Spurs). While the Rockets destroyed the Clippers recently, they have been one of the best teams in the NBA since the All-Star break. And a three seed pits the Rockets against these same Thunder.
On the other hand, the four seed would match the Rockets against Utah, a team they have handled and a team they beat last year in the playoffs.
The reason so many people want the second or third seed is the chance to avoid the Golden State Warriors until the Western Conference Finals. A four seed means they could see Golden State in the second round. But, the Rockets, if they are going to win a title, will likely have to go through the Warriors at some point anyway.
Still, Tuesday night, with their own destiny in their hands, the Rockets coughed up a game they had in the bag. That's not the way you want to start the playoffs.