Kyle Lowry parked himself between the mid-court logo and the arc and dribbled down the clock.
So he passed to Chuck Hayes, double-teamed at the right elbow.
Hayes, in a frantic, what-the-hell-am-I-supposed-to-do-with-this-thing moment, flung it to Luis Scola, who missed a contested buzzer-beater from 22 feet.
Kevin Martin, the game's leading scorer, did not handle the ball. For 21.6 hideous seconds, five guys in red and white stood around and waited for the open look that would never come.
The Rockets salvaged one of the worst end-game possessions in franchise history with courageous overtime defense.
Martin's contest-winning and-one in Utah was more of an aberration than the highlight of a trend. The top performer tends to be the one guy who never sniffs dominion.
Martin, in similar fashion, was denied a late touch when the Rockets fizzled in Hollywood vs. the Lakers.
No one with basketball acumen would have considered L.A. or Memphis' ball denial spectacular. It takes effort to deliver the rock to the right person. The Rockets froze like nudists in a blizzard and chucked up last-resort attempts that have defined their final-minutes futility.
A brilliant find netted Luis Scola a gimme lay-in with 12 seconds left in the eventual 114-106 defeat at Staples Center. Houston knotted the regulation score, but L.A. seized control with five more minutes to determine the outcome.
When a murderer's row of championship-caliber opponents flipped on poise fit for late June, the Rockets wilted like uncovered plants in below-zero weather.
The problem is easy to diagnose. Martin does not demand the ball the way a supposed go-to scorer should. None of the other four players reliable enough to close wants that responsibility.
Scola can do it in stretches but lacks the explosiveness or three-point stroke to finish the deal when the Rockets need more than a mid-range hit, a spin move or a jump hook.
The one guard built for that role could not prevent Saturday's last-second debacle because he was seething in the locker room after a contemptible walk-out that infuriated Rick Adelman and caused fans to bemoan him more. Callers flooded sports talk shows pining for his departure.
The exit that thrust Aaron Brooks into the national spotlight for the wrong reasons was easy to miss. Few at the Toyota Center saw him leave the bench with six minutes remaining in regulation. The thunderstorm of criticism that followed, though, was impossible to dodge.
The squad's would-be Molotov cocktail let the unfortunate nature of his situation consume him. Brooks aired his displeasure when GM Daryl Morey refused to tender him a contract extension, per team policy.
He then became frustrated and distraught when an ankle injury and inefficiency caused him to lose his starting job and a chunk of the career-high minutes he played last season.
Morey had to know Brooks would gripe when Kyle Lowry signed a multi-year deal last summer that would make the former backup nearly $5 million richer in the 2010-2011 campaign than the anticipated starter.
Lots of players fume when the guy who plays behind them secures a hefty payday, and they cannot command the same a few months later.
It all boiled over for Brooks, and he responded by doing something that demonstrated cowardice and immaturity. He apologized for the action Monday, and no one can color him insincere.
He's not a malcontent or a punk. He made a bad decision and said all the right things to prove his regret. He adds humor and attitude to a quality locker room. His teammates expressed shock. His coach did not hesitate to extend forgiveness.
Brooks said "sorry" for excusing himself and abandoning his squad. He nailed his damage control off the court. Now, the Rockets need him to compensate him for what he continues to do on it.
Houston won three in a row before a Tuesday humiliation ended any chance at a .500 record before the All-Star break.
The Minnesota Timberwolves had dropped 13 in a row to the Rockets and limped into Texas minus four rotation fixtures. Both teams stole tight affairs the previous night, so exhaustion was not an excuse.
The Timberpuppies feasted on the Rockets' lethargy and defenselessness en route to a devastating 112-108 victory.
Brooks finished 1-for-8 with one rebound and one assist in 20 minutes of action. He clanged all five of his triple attempts and tied Courtney Lee for the worst plus/minus figure on the roster (-9). Lee, though, also tied for the team lead in scoring (23).
He provided the reserve unit's lone spark. Brooks was just torched. Wayne Ellington and Jonny Flynn detonated for season highs in points with 18 and 15, respectively.
Lowry was not a shutdown defender, either, but his egregious errors did not say as much about the Rockets' 25-29 record.
When Kevin Love drilled the late long-distance look that ruptured Houston, a simple truth became as evident as ever.
When Adelman chats next with his petite, reserve point guard, he should not struggle with concision. The message should not require repetition or amplification.
Play better, or we're headed for the lottery.
If the Rockets hope to avoid a second-straight excused absence from the playoffs, Brooks must come to life. He has not even performed well enough to play his way out of town.
As the time available for Morey to make a move dwindles, the clock ticks for the Rockets' faint postseason hopes. The next opponent on the schedule, the Dallas Mavericks, won both meetings in Dallas. One of them was a whipping.
The Philadelphia 76ers, who visit Toyota Center next week, throttled the Al Horford-less Atlanta Hawks Tuesday night and grabbed last season's tilt in Texas.
The Denver Nuggets can seal the season series on Valentine's night. When the barbarous January schedule arrived, the Rockets could always anticipate a more favorable February.
If Houston can now lose to a 13-win Minnesota team missing Luke Ridnour, Darko Milicic, Martell Webster and leading scorer Michael Beasley, is there such a thing as favorable?
The Rockets blew a gargantuan chance and now must suffer the inevitable consequences.
When an ankle sprain sidelined Brooks for 23 games, many fans became enamored with Lowry. When he dished a career-high 18 assists in a December match, that was it for them. Brooks and his shoot-first game needed to go. Fast.
The Lowry supporters tasted a sour reality in the previous two weeks. Talent wins in the NBA, and Brooks boasts more of it.
Tasked with running the offense in crunch time, Lowry could not do a superior job. Even his biggest admirers cringe when he becomes a trigger-happy, low-percentage jumpshooter.
When the Rockets needed a three-pointer to tie Tuesday's barnburner, the best shot they could manage with Lowry at the helm was Lee's contested fallaway with seven seconds left. They needed three points. Lee panicked and went for two.
The word "panicked" sums up how the Rockets have looked in too many fourth quarters. Too often, no one steps up to become that necessary demonstrative force.
Brooks covets custody of the ball in late-game situations. He must convince Adelman with his play that he deserves the numerous final-period chances afforded him. Tuesday showed how much the Rockets need his agility to translate into production.
His horrendous showing against the Timberwolves almost topped his selfish, sordid act Saturday night. Then, he moped in an empty locker room instead of on the floor.
The Rockets are still shooting for the seventh or eighth spot, no matter the chances of a first-round bloodbath, because proud franchises never accept losing. Brooks is the key to getting there.
With Jordan Hill again relegated to Adelman's doghouse after a shoddy stretch and Chase Budinger exposed as an above-average athlete content to hoist a few jumpers, Brooks is the only player who can carry a heavier load.
Adelman cannot ask Brad Miller, Scola, Hayes, Lowry, Martin, or even rookie Patrick Patterson, to do more. Lee is a grand role player who sometimes approximates a star.
If Brooks does not pick up the slack, the Rockets can count on one of the top 14 draft picks for a second consecutive June.
Will he start speeding past defenders for more frequent, scintillating conversions at the hoop? Will his stepbacks become back-breakers instead of drawbacks?
Only Brooks can exit himself from this funk. Each night he regresses, he threatens to take the Rockets down with him.
He should also develop some perspective about his uncertain future. When Morey says he does not do extensions, he means it.
Five other Houston players will become homeless July 1. That list includes the franchise's foundation and its best perimeter defender.
Would the Rockets host a belated Lunar New Year celebration, even with a strong Chinese population in Houston, sans Yao Ming?
Lowry and Scola did not receive extension offers. They had to wait for several weeks last July, just as Brooks might this one.
Morey inked Lowry, a restricted free agent, after the Cleveland Cavaliers signed him to a lucrative offer sheet. Scola admitted the Rockets' extended silence forced him to contemplate a return to Europe.
Aaron, get over it.
This is not the time for Brooks to pout. This is his chance to prove himself to Morey as indispensable. He did a stupid thing Saturday and handled it with an appropriate dose of contrition.
"Emotions got the best of me," he told the Houston Chronicle's Jonathan Feigen. "It was an embarrassing moment for myself. I wish I wouldn't have done it. That's not the type of guy I am.
"I love this team. I just want to send apologies to everyone, to Mr. (Leslie) Alexander, to the GM, to coaches and especially to the team because I let them down. It was just a big mistake. That's not me. That's not part of my character. And it won't happen again.
"I don't just say stuff just to say it. I'm genuinely sorry. Hopefully my play and my hustle will show I'm genuinely sorry and I'm here for the team."
Sorry? The Rockets can start thinking about the playoffs again when that word does not also describe the state of Brooks' game.
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