Why the Rockets Clinched

Philip Maymin
Basketball News Services 

The Rockets beat the Denver Nuggets106-103Friday night to clinch their first playoff berth since the lockout-shortened 1998-1999 season. Elated, overconfident, or just doing their best to keep the Nuggets out of the playoffs, the Rockets lost to the Utah Jazz 82-69the next day, keeping the drama for eighth place alive. The drama is still so strong, that if the Rockets lose their last two games, there's a good chance they will be occupying the bottom seed of the Western Conference postseason standings. 

Rockets owner Les Alexander was elated with the win. "This is what we play for, to make the playoffs and to win the whole thing," he said. "We're thrilled to be in it!" After the reality sank in, however, Alexander said what has been on everybody's mind: it shouldn't have come down to the wire. "It should have been done 10 games ago," he said, "but it's nice."

In fact, the reason for the clinch happened not ten days ago but one month ago in a game that didn't even involve the Rockets. It was only because of Denver's March 14 victory over Utah that Houston clinched their playoff berth.

How did the Rockets clinch? If Utah and Denver each win their remaining two games, and Houston drops their two, then all three teams will be tied with a 44-36 record. It would be an unusual three-way tiebreaker. In this scenario, Portland is out of the running, as they already have 39 losses. The three-way tiebreaker is decided by the cumulative head-to-head matchup percentages of all the winning teams. Houston split the season series with both Denver and Utah, but Denver knocked out Utah 3-1. That means Utah would have the worst head-to-head cumulative winning percentage, and would be dismissed from the postseason party.

Otherwise, had Denver and Utah split their season series, Houston would have been spending the summer on the outside looking in, because they would have lost the secondary tiebreaker. The secondary tiebreaker, if all three teams had split all three head-to-head matchups, is based on conference record, and at 20-32, Houston would have had a worse conference record than either Denver's 30-22 or Utah's 27-25.

How fortunate for Houston that Denver had defeated Utah! January 6, January 20, and March 14 are the key dates for Houston fans to remember, as it was on those days that Denver dominated Utah to get three victories. One less victory by Denver and Houston would still not have clinched the playoffs, with just two games remaining.

More than anything, the Rockets need to get another victory so that they can justify getting into the playoffs on their own and not because of a game that happened a month ago. Moreover, they need a win to secure the seventh seed.

The Rockets play their last road game of the regular season tonight as they travel to Seattle to take on the three-point shooting Sonics. It will be good practice for facing the Mavericks in their season finale on Wednesday. By current standings, the Rockets will face the Kings, so no matter what they say, these last two games could be good practices in playing against high-scoring, deep-shooting teams. The Sonics game tonight starts at 9:00pm CDT and will be broadcast locally on channel 51 and nationally on NBA League Pass.

The Jazz outrebounded the Rockets 41-28 on Saturday. Four Jazzmen got at least as many rebounds as Maurice Taylor, who was the high man for Houston with seven.

Steve Francis played just 23 minutes against the Jazz, as Mark Jackson saw more time, playing 30 minutes. Could this be a not-so-subtle clue from Jeff Van Gundy to Francis that he has to play within the system if he wants to play in the playoffs?

Adrian Griffin(knee) is on the injured list.


Our own Bill "The Rocket Guy" Ingram writes: The lovable Houston mascot vowed to remain on the ledge outside Toyota Center until the Rockets clinched a playoff berth. On Friday night his team brought him home. The Rockets used an incredible third quarter surge to beat the Nuggets and clinch the first playoff berth in five years!

Jonathan Feigen ofThe Houston Chronicle writes: So the Rockets really weren't terribly interested in their Saturday night in Utah. What's the big deal? The game really did not matter.The best the Rockets could finish is seventh in the Western Conference, and they can clinch that tonight with a victory over the SuperSonics or Wednesday with a win over the Mavericks. They had played four games in five nights, seven in 10. But as disinterested as they might have been, the playoffs should get their attention. So big deal. They lost a meaningless game. The games that matter are still a week away. Makes sense, in a backflip-to-positive-spin sort of way. But the Rockets players with the most playoff experience weren't buying it. The Jacksons -- Jim and Mark -- have been there and back. Neither sounded ready to blow off the "meaningless" games or the warning signs of the Rockets' late-season slide into the playoffs.

Michael C. Lewis ofThe Salt Lake Tribune writes: Andrei Kirilenko had those steals down the stretch, and that monster rebound over Yao Ming. Raja Bell drilled that baseline jumper at the shot clock after a textbook pump fake, and Gordan Giricek scored seven straight points to seal the Jazz's 82-69 victory over the Houston Rockets on Saturday night. But the most valuable player of the Jazz's final-week playoff race? Maybe Steve Francis.The Rockets' All-Star point guard has done the Jazz all kinds of favors this weekend. He scored a season-high 33 points with 11 assists to dispatch the Denver Nuggets on Friday night, then disappeared with one of his worst games of the year against the Jazz to allow them to gain an edge for the final playoff spot in the NBA's Western Conference. "We should be in a position where we play hard consistently every night," Francis said. "But we didn't come out with that 'oomph,' like we really wanted to win." Coach Jeff Van Gundy seemed to suggest that Francis was a big part of the problem.

Tom McEachin ofThe Ogden Standard-Examiner writes: The Jazz point guards did a good job of frustrating Houston All-Star Steve Francis Saturday night, at least collectively.Individually, it was a different story. Francis finished with more turnovers than points (six to five) and more fouls than assists (four to two), and coach Jeff Van Gundy benched him for the fourth quarter. "I was just doing what I thought would give us the best chance to win," Van Gundy said.