The story coming in to Game 5 was the officiating, and the story going out of Game 5 will also be the officiating.
The Dallas Mavericks escaped with their very lives on Monday, aided by 3 men in stripes and some very poor Rocket free throw shooting, winning a nail-biter 103-100 and taking their third straight for a 3-2 series edge.
There is bad officiating, real bad officiating and then there's what we saw Monday in Dallas. It was Don Beebe all over again.
With just under a minute to go and the Rockets trailing by 3, Jason Terry missed a three. Jon Barry came flying in baseline to grab the board under the hoop.
Michael Finley, while completely out of bounds, poked the ball out of Jon Barry's hands. Finley did not step on the line or put himself in a "maybe he was out" tough call position ... not in the slightest. Finley was a good 6+ feet out of bounds, having stepped 5 or 6 times already out of play, then ran back under the goal towards Barry and while still 2 feet out of bounds poked the ball loose.
It was not even remotely close.
Barry, who had his back to the baseline, didn't know what hit him. He dove for the ball and collided with Jerry Stackhouse. The refs were suddenly present, calling a loose ball foul on Barry. Stackhouse's freebies gave the Mavs a 5-point edge and completely changed the game, a game the Rockets were getting control of in the final 4 minutes.
You try to look past it, but you get the feeling the Rockets are just not getting a fair shake in this one. With just about every game close, being decided by 3 or 4 points, the officials are having a tremendous impact, and so far it hasn't worked in Houston's favor.
The Rockets looked beaten with 4:08 to go, trailing by 11 points, but Tracy McGrady, who was having an awful shooting night, drained a triple. Then David Wesley got a steal and two free throws, and after a Barry trifecta, the Rockets had whittled the lead to 3, silenced the crowd and we had ourselves a contest.
Only the officiating down the stretch wasn't the lone problem. In fact, the Rockets could have overcome it had they hit their free throws. They missed 7 fourth quarter freebies - including 5 straight by Yao Ming, who is usually nails from the stripe.
Yao's misses were particularly hard to take because he could not be stopped in the fourth. Dallas simply has no solution for him. Erick Dampier? Please. Yao has made this guy look like a clown in this series. Allan Henderson or Dirk Nowitzki? Laughable. The only chance the Mavericks have to stop Yao is for the refs to control him or take him out of the game.
Dallas will have to make adjustments because McGrady and Yao had a real connection working in the fourth, exposing the smaller, quicker lineup of the Mavericks. Yao hit 6-7 shots from the floor in the final frame, finishing with a game-high 30 on the night. If he makes his free throws (3-8 from the line in the fourth), Dallas is facing elimination in Game 6.
Instead, that's the harsh reality for the Rockets. Win Thursday, or go home.