The Rockets had seen this one before.
A 16-point lead had become an 11-point deficit in less than 12 minutes. The Denver Nuggets' explosive offense was burning everything in its path, with Carmelo Anthony hotter than a brick oven.
Then, the Rockets did what they have not been able to do in too many critical games this season: They executed in the clutch. They fought back.
Kyle Lowry scored at the cup on two straight possessions. Shane Battier dialed deep from long distance on consecutive tries.
Aaron Brooks knifed through the Nugget defense for an acrobatic lay-in.
Trevor Ariza drained a three-pointer to cut the once double-figure deficit to two. Down 121-119, Luis Scola finished off another workmanlike performance with a yeoman's board and a fast break basket.
He wrestled a defensive rebound from Nene and then ran the length of the court to finish a three-point play. The foul he drew on Chauncey Billups was the Denver point guard's sixth.
Scola then forced Nene into a miss and swiped the loose ball from the Brazilian center—again. He secured three crucial rebounds in the final two minutes.
Brooks, then, found the ice in his veins and blasted the Nuggets with it. He stopped on a dime with less than six seconds left and drilled a pull-up jumper.
Carmelo Anthony missed his desperation heave at the buzzer, and the Rockets won in improbable fashion 125-123.
On too many nights, the Rockets have folded like lawn chairs. Those pratfalls may keep them out of the playoffs, even if they make a final push and frighten the eighth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers.
The euphoria of Monday night cannot erase the dreary atmosphere after inexplicable home losses to the woeful Indiana Pacers and Sacramento Kings. Neither of those squads had beaten a winning opponent on the road before their stops in Houston.
The players will look back on those defeats and wonder how they even had a chance.
Still, the endless hustle and fighting spirit that defined the Rockets in November and December returned. When Scola finished his late and-one, the crowd erupted.
The noise was deafening. It was so loud just before the final possession that the folks who control the in-game sound decided to let the fans chant "defense" without aid.
No booming bass track or commands on the video board. Just good ol' fashioned, make-your-ears-ring noise from a raucous crowd.
The fans witnessed a Western Conference Finals-like regular season match. They should relish the memory, too, since the Rockets will be fishing when the real thing arrives.
The Nuggets, looking to complete a season-series sweep and fend off the Dallas Mavericks for the West's second seed, also wanted this game. Carmelo Anthony's blistering, seemingly effortless 45-point performance said as much.
Digging deep, the Rockets found a way to want it more. They were better than the Nuggets for one night.
The problem GM Daryl Morey must fix this summer: They cannot be better on enough occasions to make the kind of postseason run that will satisfy Owner Leslie Alexander or the championship-hungry fans.
Every Rockets loss highlights the necessary roster improvements Morey must engineer.
A defensive-minded, seven-foot backup big man with athleticism is essential. Maybe the undersized Jordan Hill can become that with more playing time. Maybe not (see Dorsey, Joey).
Rick Adelman cannot expect Yao Ming to play more than 25 minutes a night in the first few weeks of his expected return. Even at full-strength, an injury-plagued Yao should not see more than 30 minutes of action with any frequency.
The roster, at present, could not provide him the necessary relief.
Every time the Rockets win, it shines a Gulf of Mexico-sized spotlight on what they do have.
It also makes Morey's job this summer that much tougher.
Teams Will Make Rockets Pay Up for Scola, Lowry
Scola and Lowry will enter the market as restricted free agents.
Given that a double-figure number of franchises will strike out on Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, and Chris Bosh, Morey should prepare for a ferocious bidding war for both players.
What team with cap space would not love to have Scola, a world-class competitor who hustles like his basketball shorts are on fire?
Lowry, one of the team’s three best defenders, remains in the top 10 at taking charges and drawing offensive fouls, even after missing more than a month with various ankle ailments. Other execs will look to further wound Adelman's roster and snatch up the reserve guard.
Scola dropped a career-high 44 points on the scary bad New Jersey Nets on Saturday night. His stellar performance carried the Rockets to a gotta-have-it victory.
It also raised his price.
At least a few execs will offer him more than the mid-level exception, and he will prove worth every penny.
Morey fleeced Spurs' GM R.C. Buford a few years ago. He should expect his peers to try to do the same in a few months.
Scola is a rare breed. You can find a talented big man capable of producing on the NBA level in every draft. You find a Scola once every five years.
I attend every Rockets home game and watch every road contest. A fifth banner would hang in the AT&T Center rafters if the Argentine forward played in San Antonio instead of Houston. Trust me.
Anyone who considers re-signing Scola a foregone conclusion should remember what happened with Ron Artest. In this business, one bit of bad luck can change everything.
Brooks Also Part of Offseason Equation
With four minutes left in Monday's barnburner, Adelman embraced insanity. Or so I thought.
Lowry had just banked-in two difficult layups and assisted on a Battier triple.
Hot on the comeback trail, with Lowry confounding the Nuggets' porous defense, Adelman told Brooks to remove his warmups.
He swapped Lowry for Brooks, and the decision looked to be one of the coach's worst in a long time. Just seconds after checking in, Brooks drove baseline and fumbled the ball out of bounds.
Then, as if to atone for his untimely miscue, he caught fire and made Adelman look like a MENSA member.
Brooks did miss one of two free throws in the final minute, but he brushed the brick aside and nailed the game-winning jumper.
Adelman has taken advantage of this luxury in many of the team's 34 wins. He can exchange one effective point guard for another with the mere motion of his index finger.
Brooks is not a pending free agent, but that won't stop GMs from trying to pry him from Houston.
If Morey hopes to land Chris Bosh in a sign-and-trade, he will surely have to offer Brooks, another key rotation cog, and one of the Knicks' two first round picks just to get Bryan Colangelo to listen.
Brooks, like Scola, will not be easy to replace. Guards with his combination of blazing speed and shooting touch do not appear on command.
It would be nice if Morey could just clap his hands and unearth another speedster gem late in the first round. It doesn't work that way.
The front office must decide how much more it wants to invest in this core. Brooks is this rotation's center of gravity. When he falls, he takes his teammates with him.
The Rockets, even if they miss the playoffs, will exceed most preseason expectations and likely finish with a winning record.
The unexpected success has not masked an ugly reality.
Would Bosh or another marquee star be worth losing Brooks or Scola?
Can Adelman afford to lose both?
Morey already surrendered Carl Landry to fetch Kevin Martin. Most 31st picks stay overseas or in the D-League.
Every great draft find involves some luck.
No hoops executive can belt a home run on every at bat, and Houston's "Moneyball" guru cannot outsmart that truth.
Chase Budinger is a keeper.
David Anderson is a commodious spot-up shooter with size.
Hill has earned a longer look.
Even Jared Jeffries has made himself useful.
Brooks boasts star quality and has won more playoff games in three seasons than Bosh has in his seven-year career.
GMs will rack up minutes flooding Colangelo’s cell phone with offers for the All-Star forward. Not many can offer a player as enticing as Brooks.
Martin Changes the Game
The key to all three Rockets-Nuggets jousts can be seen in the box score. In the first matchup at the Pepsi Center, Anthony attempted as many free throws—20—as the Rockets. In the second meeting, Denver shot 39 freebies to Houston’s 19.
Kevin Martin’s message on Monday was clear. Enough. The Rockets attempted 35 free throws, 15 more than the Nuggets. Martin was responsible for 16 of those 35 foul shots.
His aggression has bolstered the Rockets’ offense and can only help the cause if Yao returns. For all the grief Martin earns for his flimsy defense, he merits praise for getting to the line a lot and making most of his tries. He’s shooting in the high 80s as a Rocket.
Martin’s determination to draw fouls was as key Monday as the grit Scola, Lowry, and Brooks displayed. The roster, as constructed, does not often bring out Martin’s best. The talented 27-year-old off guard has often forced bad shots and struggled to find a rhythm within Adelman’s retooled offense.
Yao will alleviate some of Martin’s frustrations. Morey must do the rest by tweaking the roster in a way that benefits his star acquisition.
The fans roared as the Rockets knocked off the Nuggets and kept their playoff dream alive. A roster that ekes out these thrilling wins with consistency can expect an atmosphere to match in more of the 41 home outings.
Each loss makes Morey’s need to continue his shopping spree in 2010 more glaring. He purchased the K-Mart special, expensive as it was. He should keep that credit card handy.