Clippers' energy, defense of Rockets' Harden are Game 7 question marks
The world's brightest basketball minds could study film of the Rockets' Game 6 comeback for years on end and never be able to fully explain it. Some events are simply beyond us. There was some math and strategy in play that allowed Houston to erase a 19-point deficit and build its own 15-point lead in a matter of minutes, yet the full, tidal swing of the series on the whole defies explanation. The Clippers had all but advanced to the Western Conference finals before the Rockets pried out their playoff survival from the slimmest of probabilities.
Any such episode will evoke questions of pressure and momentum as the series moves forward—high-volume sports tropes that attempt to impose order upon chaos. Los Angeles, faced with its third closeout opportunity in a row, will face the burden of completion in Game 7. Houston, riding high after finding a healthy rhythm in Game 5 and rooting out a miracle in Game 6, can approach the winner-take-all finale with added confidence. The degree to which these things matter is debatable. But in a very human sport that can never be fully extricated from its context, these intangible influences have some role to play in how a series progresses from game to game.
Central to this discussion is the difference between a series that turns on emotion as opposed to one that turns on tactics. Any game of makes and misses is inherently streaky. There will be times when a team like the Rockets goes so cold from the field as to be beyond saving, and others when Josh Smith and Corey Brewer go 5 of 7 from three despite all we know to be true about their perimeter shooting. That particular high kept Houston alive in this series. It didn't, however, produce any evidence to suggest that the hot shooting of the Rockets' role players is bankable moving forward.
All of which isn't to say that Houston made its Game 6 push without adjustment. Kevin McHale made some subtle tweaks in the way the Rockets operate (especially on defense) leading into and throughout that defining game. Some took well, others didn't. On balance, though, McHale's alterations prodded enough life out of his team's defense to flip the outcome. Now, to the extent that there is specific momentum to carry the Rockets from Game 6 to Sunday, it's there. Houston plays best with a certain amount of frenzy to its defense and Dwight Howard stabilizing the middle, as was evident in its demonstrative fourth-quarter run.
Notable in Houston's comeback was the absence of James Harden. The MVP runner-up was supportive of his teammates from the bench, applauding their efforts as McHale opted to finish the game with those players who had trimmed the deficit and claimed the lead for themselves. That decision has largely been framed as the Rockets succeeding in spite of Harden watching from the sidelines. This much is inarguable; Harden is a huge, singular piece of how Houston goes about scoring. Yet on the odd day where Smith, Brewer, and Jason Terry were able to drum up offense for themselves, McHale's decision to keep Harden out may have played a bigger role in the Rockets' comeback than has been acknowledged.
Even if we ignore the role that inserting Harden might have had in taking the ball out of the hands of the right mix of streaky scorers, the biggest issues come in the way that the superstar guard has detracted from Houston's overall defense. Over the course of this series, the Rockets have allowed 113.2 points per 100 possessions with Harden on the court—nearly the worst mark on the team. This is far from some noise-altered coincidence. The defensive improvement we saw of Harden in the regular season has faded hard and fast in these playoffs. It's blatant in transition but costly at other times, none of which could be afforded in a run like Houston's.
[daily_cut.NBA]The flow of a comeback can be delicate. Had even a few possessions played out differently, so, too, might have the final verdict. Brewer and Trevor Ariza came up with high-energy defensive plays that proved essential to the Rockets' cause. Harden is great. He's just not at all that kind of player, and in the weird, magical run of Houston's comeback push, 'that kind of player' keyed a come-from-behind victory in ways that Harden would not have. That in itself locks Game 6 into amber. Harden will play big minutes as the Rockets' season is decided, and with that comes greater offensive faculty and some interesting defensive challenges.
In terms of projecting the success of that instance forward, it's also worth considering how the Clippers' exhaustion came to influence their execution. The Rockets were consistently where they needed to be in coverage—taking away passing angles, smothering Blake Griffin post-ups, and completely sealing the glass to deny L.A. any added opportunity. They were able to do so, in part, because the Clippers had exhausted all offensive punch and appeared exhausted at the start of the comeback.
The evidence on the court is malleable to all kinds of theories (Had the attrition of heavy playoff minutes caught up the Clippers? Did a sizable lead push the Clippers to check out entirely?), many of which are specific to the conditions of Game 6 in ways that wouldn't automatically translate to Game 7. There is no question that L.A. lost itself in the moment. Every offensive sequence down the stretch was ragged and out of character. Yet for as soul-crushing a loss as that turned out to be for the Clippers, Sunday is a new day fit for its own complexion independent of what came before it. We've seen the Clippers hit terrifying levels at their best moments in these playoffs and the Rockets survive incredible runs when they commit to a lively defense and transition game. With any luck we'll see both in fine form for Game 7 as a Western Conference finals berth rests in the balance.