Not every late win in the NBA depends on out-executing or out-clutching the other team. Often, the victorious side merely gets lucky, whether via a fortuitous call or some other matter of random chance. A team can do everything in its power to lose and still win. In those cases, the post-game celebration is more about avoiding disaster than earned success.
The Houston Rockets got to feel that sweet relief at the end of Monday’s home game against the Boston Celtics. Down six points after a 35-17 third quarter for the Celtics, the Rockets worked their way back to take a 107-102 lead on a James Harden three-pointer with 53 seconds on the clock. An Avery Bradley cut the margin to three points on the next possession, after which Patrick Beverley rebounded a Harden miss to give the Rockets a clear advantage with only 21 seconds on the clock. They’d only have to make their free throws to sew up their third win in a row and fifth in six games.
They never got to the free-throw line. The Celtics trapped Harden in the hope of forcing a miscue or fouling, and he obliged by swinging an elbow that caught guard Marcus Smart in the face. An offensive foul was called immediately, but referees reviewed the play and tagged Harden with a flagrant-1 foul to give the Celtics two shots and the ball. Take a look:
Smart made both flagrant freebies to give Boston a chance at a winner on the game-s final possession. Isaiah Thomas missed a layup on their first try, but the ball went out of bounds off Harden on a contested rebound (with guard Eric Gordon hurting his ankle on the play, too). Their second attempt went much better as big man Al Horford created an open lay-up at the rim. He just couldn’t convert it:
Smart didn’t exactly help matters with his attempt at drawing a foul on the rebound, either:
Seconds remaining, down 1, Marcus Smart performs one of his most egregious, glorious flops ever ???? https://t.co/nTBrVVurcR
— Rob Perez (@World_Wide_Wob) December 6, 2016
Horford’s rough miss sewed up a 107-106 win for the Rockets, currently fourth in the West at 14-7. The Celtics dropped to 12-9, still good enough for the No. 3 spot in the East.
While Harden’s foul would have been a huge reason for a Rockets loss, he was actually quite obviously the best player on the court. His 10 turnovers aside, Harden scored an extremely efficient 37 points on just 8-of-14 shooting from the floor and 3-of-5 from deep. Harden made all 18 of his free throws to create that fantastic 2.64 points-per-shot average and added eight assists, eight rebounds, and three steals. As ever, he made the Rockets offense go.
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