By TERRANCE HARRIS, SportsRadio 610

HOUSTON (CBS Houston) — As far as Rockets coach Kevin McHale is concerned there is less than a fine line between playing hard and competing.

In fact there just may not be a line at all.

“Competing means you are playing hard to begin with,” McHale said prior to Saturday night’s matchup between the Rockets and Dallas Mavericks. “When the ball is on the floor you have to get it, when the ball goes up you’ve got to get your man, you’ve got to box out and you have to be willing to set a good pick, you have to be willing to take a hit to go get the offensive rebound, you have to be willing to give a hit back not to give up an offensive rebound. It’s all those things where you put your body on the line.”

It was interesting then to watch his team, short-handed and all, go out Saturday night and carry out the very definition of competing in their 101-99 losing effort in overtime to the defending World Champion Mavericks at the Toyota Center.

Despite being without their best scorers, Kevin Marti and Kyle Lowry, the Rockets went out and matched shots with two of the best in the game – Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry — to fuel the playoff-like atmosphere in the building. Not only did the Rockets match shots, they also defended and they crashed the boards.

The night had gone so well that you fully expected Chase Budinger’s off-balanced 3-point shot to go in as time expired in overtime just as Chandler Parsons’ 3-pointer had to force the improbable overtime with 3.3 seconds left in regulation. But Budinger’s shot bounced off the rim and ended what had been a thrilling game and what could have been the defining game for the Rockets as they make a push for the playoffs.

Still that was one to build on.

“We never put our heads down, we never gave up,” said guard Courtney Lee, who has had to transition from sixth man to starter in place of Martin. “We continued to fight and that’s one positive we can take from the game.”

If there was such a thing in the NBA as moral victories, the Rockets certainly earned one Saturday night. But unfortunately they aren’t, so the reality is the home team let one slip away in this ultra tight Western Conference playoff race. Saturday’s outcome alone was the difference between the No.5 spot and one place out of playoff contention at No.9 which is where the Rockets were after Saturday night’s loss (they moved up to No.8 after Denver’s loss Sunday).

“You can’t expect much more than that what we had (Saturday),” said Rockets forward Luis Scola, whose team gets another shot at the Mavericks on Tuesday night on the road after hosting Sacramento on Monday night. “We got good looks but they just didn’t go in. We played well, we just need to keep going.

“We needed that game. It’s a shame we weren’t going to have it and now we’ve got to go there to Dallas and get one.”

The Rockets (26-23) certainly don’t have much time or margin for error if they have any hopes of making the playoffs for the first time in two years. They need to win and win big in this abbreviated season with just 17 games remaining.

The key is to get back Martin, who has missed the last seven with a strained right shoulder, and Lowry, who has missed nine consecutive games with a bacterial infection and probably will be sidelined at least a couple of more weeks. The good news is when the two leading scorers return they come back to a team with improved parts as reserves Goran Dragic and Lee have stepped up in their absences and Parsons has seeming turned a corner in his rookie season. And they have much better rebounding with the trade that brought Marcus Camby to the team a little over a week ago.

You combine that with the stabilizing presence of Sam Dalembert and Scola and it’s easy to see how these Rockets playoffs chances are real in this post-Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady era.

Contact Terrance Harris at or follow him on Twitter @Terranceharris


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