By Ben Golliver
The Rockets moved five games clear of the No. 9 seed in the Western Conference playoff race on Sunday and they have James Harden to thank for it.
Houston's All-Star guard hit a game-winning jumper with less than five seconds remaining to claim a 96-95 home win over the Spurs. With less than ten seconds remaining in regulation and the Spurs leading 95-94, Houston inbounded the ball to center Omer Asik, who screened Kawhi Leonard with purpose as he executed a dribble hand-off to a curling Harden. Taking advantage of the freedom from his defender and some daylight in front of him, Harden dribbled to the top of the key to line up a jumper. Asik's hard cut to the hoop brought a helping Tim Duncan away from the foul line area, allowing Harden to rise up without a true contesting effort.
Harden, the NBA's leader in free throws attempted per game, then leaned to his right in hopes of drawing a call as Leonard worked to defend him from behind. He didn't draw much contact but it didn't matter, as his straight-on jumper swished through with 4.6 seconds remaining. The Spurs had two tries at the other end -- a Duncan jumper and a Manu Ginobili putback -- but neither proved successful.
The Rockets moved to 39-31 with the win and are closing in on their first postseason appearance since 2009. Houston now holds a three-game lead over the No. 8 seed Lakers and a five-game lead over the Jazz and Mavericks, who are currently tied for the No. 9 seed. In reality, Houston is now in a position to look up the charts without worrying so much about their rearview, as they trail Golden State by just one-half game for the No. 6 seed.
Harden finished with a game-high 29 points (on six-for-16 shooting), nine rebounds, six assists, two steals and two blocks in 50 minutes.
The Spurs were led by 23 points (on seven-for-13 shooting), seven assists and four rebounds from Tony Parker
. San Antonio, the Western Conference's No. 1 seed, dropped to 53-17 with the loss, which snapped a four-game winning streak. They hold just a 1.5-game lead over the Thunder
in the race for the West's top spot.