HOUSTON—Over the course of their seven-game series against the Clippers, the Rockets assumed many, tangled forms. They opened the series as all-too-casual participants. They were lively for some stretches and aggressively ineffective in others. They recaptured their regular season identity, let it slip away, and tapped back into it just in time. They shored up a generous, early-series defense to later unsettle the best offense in the league. They played so poorly as to deserve a 3-1 series deficit and their seemingly inevitable elimination. Then, after using a miracle comeback as their launchpad, the Rockets executed so resiliently in the final games of the series they advanced anyway.
The second-round Rockets were unpredictable. Whatever potential Houston had shown over the course of the regular season came and went during its games against Los Angeles. The version of the team that finished the series with a 113–100 victory bore little resemblance to the listless group worked over by Austin Rivers earlier in the series.
"Game 1 and Game 7 were two different teams completely," Rockets coach Kevin McHale said. "The Game 1 team was really lethargic, walking around and we didn't play with much pace and much force. The Game 7 team that you saw today played the way we played most of the year: With force, with aggression. Getting to the line 41 times. Putting pressure on them. Making them foul you. That's how we have to play.
"I told our guys [being down] 1-3 feels really, really, really bad—especially when they stomp on you in Games 3 and 4," McHale said. "But it was just our guys that just kind of ground it out just one game at a time. We've had many three-game winning streaks throughout the year and our guys just rallied together. They just did a hell of a job."
That much cannot be argued. All great NBA playoff runs have a bit of magic to them. So, too, does the Rockets' push: A logic-defying surge that saved Game 6 to set up a fearless team win to finish the series. In dispatching the Clippers on Sunday, Houston became just the ninth team in NBA history to overcome a 3-1 series deficit.
[daily_cut.NBA]L.A. will have to live with its permanent residence on the wrong side of history. Three times the Clippers took to the court with an opportunity to eliminate the Rockets. Three times they failed. To the mind of Clippers coach Doc Rivers, Game 5—the first of those closeout attempts—was a turning point for the series.
"I thought they were ready to go home [in Game 5] if we supplied the pressure," Rivers said, "and we didn't."
From there, the Rockets reduced their uphill climb to individual games and their individual games to specific possessions. Game 6 was decided when the Clippers took the final stretch of the game as a formality. They ran the bare minimum of what could be called an offense, allowing Josh Smith's jumper and Corey Brewer's energy access to the impossible.
In Game 7, Houston's defensive execution tightened up further by prioritizing threats (like leaving Matt Barnes, who went 10 of 40 from the field after Game 1, largely unguarded) and dragging out the staple actions of L.A.'s offense. Ball denial and pressure on the dribble forced the Clippers out of their rhythms and into a more desperate mode. Nothing seemed to work as intended. When Chris Paul would dominate the ball to manufacture a shot, he did so under duress and to only moderate effect. Blake Griffin's post-ups were defended well by Smith and Terrence Jones and supported by Dwight Howard. No Clippers shooter (including J.J. Redick, who went 2 of 9 from deep) was able to knock down shots when called upon.
At no point was their collective output enough to take the lead. Runs were unraveled by a defense that gave out with strategic prodding. Harden and others were able to get into the paint off the dribble, and once there baited DeAndre Jordan into leaving his feet. This forced additional rotations that the Clippers were not prepared to resolve fully, which then left open another finisher around the rim or an open three-point shooter spotting up on the perimeter. That Harden was also able to keep his assigned defender on his hip after working around a screen allowed him to neutralize two Clippers defenders at a time.
Houston ended up with 28 points or more in each quarter. This was a steady stream of execution and intention from one of the better teams in the Western Conference. That alone would have been enough to challenge, or beat, the Clippers on a more functional day. Instead, L.A. facilitated its own clear demise with unforced turnovers in the backcourt, silly fouls to inflate Houston's free throw total, and moments of weary play.
This series was a drain on the core Clippers, who were forced to work against their teammates' painful limitations. That's not an excuse so much as a reality; the way L.A.'s roster was constructed left it vulnerable for just this kind of outcome.
And, by the same token, Houston's deeper construction enabled it to capitalize in exactly this kind of situation. Trevor Ariza was brilliant in his role as an offensive pressure release. Pablo Prigioni came up with some of the biggest plays of the game: Momentum-breaking steals that turned into Rockets three-pointers. Smith and Jones continued to balance their joint role as Houston's supplementary creators, playing off of Harden's drives and Howard's rolls to equally positive effect. Jason Terry defended Paul more effectively than could have been reasonably expected. Brewer turned in 11 points for the night, which was one more than Redick in about half as many minutes.
"We just had a lot of guys that played well," McHale said. "That's what it takes."
Fulfilling that same balance in the next series is another matter entirely. Impressive as it was for the Rockets to mount a comeback against the reeling Clippers, the Warriors—who wait in the Western Conference finals—are a more complete and intensive challenge. Houston's role players will be challenged to their most uncomfortable limits. Harden will have the full attention of the best defense in the league. Howard's defensive presence will be schemed around. We have much to learn about how the specific matchups in that series might play out, but one thing is abundantly clear upfront for a team in Houston's position: Contradictory performance won't be enough.