LOS ANGELES—Eric Gordon sat in the front row on the baseline, in a black and white shirt, beneath the basket where the Clippers threw all the bricks. He left for New Orleans three-and-a-half years ago, as part of the Chris Paul trade, on the day the franchise changed. The turnaround was set for completion Thursday night, as the Clippers built a 19-point third quarter lead, and the crowd at Staples Center stood in anticipation of the team’s first trip to the Western Conference finals in its 45-year-history.
They were still standing, a quarter later, shell-shocked by a collapse that could take its place alongside some of the sad chapters in Clipper lore. With MVP runner-up James Harden sitting on the bench, a white towel curled over his neck, the Rockets mounted one of the unlikeliest playoff comebacks ever. In this second-round series, they’d been blown out by the Clippers in both games at Staples, and they were getting blown out again. Instead of countering with their most dynamic offensive player, they went with Corey Brewer, Josh Smith, Trevor Ariza and Jason Terry around Dwight Howard.
That’s the unit that scored 34 points in the final nine minutes, that held the Clippers to 13, and that forced an improbable Game 7 at Toyota Center on Sunday. “I could see it in their eyes,” said Rockets coach Kevin McHale. “I could see that they caught a rhythm.” With a little more than five minutes left in the fourth quarter, McHale sent Harden to the scorers’ table, and then called him back. There was no one to remove. The Rockets were attacking on offense, scrambling on defense, sinking three-pointers and contesting them. Howard made a vicious block, Ariza a sublime save. Brewer scored 15 points in the fourth, Smith 14. Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan went scoreless. Meanwhile, Harden stood next to McHale, bent over at the waist, nodding and clapping.
[daily_cut.NBA]At the end of an epic 119–107 Game 6 victory, Ariza caught up to Harden in the tunnel, a couple guys from south L.A. stunned by their latest homecoming. Ariza put his hands on Harden’s shoulders and whispered in his ear. Then they went and jumped on Terry. This series that looked like such a dud—as exciting as a free-throw shooting contest between Jordan and Howard—has taken a dramatic turn. The Rockets obviously have the edge, but when the Clippers come out of mourning, they will remember that they’ve been here before. Paul’s first playoff series in L.A. followed the same pattern. The Clippers went up 3-1 on Memphis, dropped Games 5 and 6, before winning on the road in 7. “We’ve been in this situation,” Griffin said.
The difference, of course, is they didn’t have to recover from a colossal meltdown. With two-and-a-half minutes left in the third quarter, the Clippers appeared ready to start studying Warriors video, so convinced were they that the game was over. “I thought we were trying to run out the clock,” head coach Doc Rivers said, “and we stopped playing.” Paul was slow initiating offense, allowing the Rockets to set up, and when the Clippers did create open shots they failed to take advantage. With every missed three, and clanked layup, pressure mounted. In the end, they didn’t just lose. They were blown away, thanks to a player who was waived less than five months ago.
When Smith walked on the court, early in the fourth quarter, Howard approached his former AAU teammate and told him: “It’s up to me and you to lead these guys.” The Pistons may have given up on Smith, after handing him $54 million, but Howard never did. Two old friends keyed the charge, with Howard posting 20 points with 21 rebounds, and Smith draining the step-back threes that have traditionally been his bugaboo. After the last one, he flexed to the fans, and Howard looked to the rafters. There is a reason the Rockets captured the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference meat grinder this season, despite major injuries to Howard, Patrick Beverley and Donatas Montiejunas. Harden, of course, but also a collection of role players who shoot, defend, and rise when least expected.
The Rockets saw Griffin make a 180-degree reverse layup, and Paul a Dipsy-doo scoop shot, as the third-quarter deficit swelled. But instead of getting discouraged, they grew determined. “I said, ‘Man, this is crazy,’” Howard recalled. “But we pulled together. We just kept saying, ‘We’re not going to quit. We’re not going to give this up. We come too far just to end it like this.’” McHale preached that a comeback would start with defense, and they believed, while the Clippers buckled.
Rivers tried talking to his players in the locker room afterward, but he got the sense they weren’t listening, so he will try again on Friday. The Clippers wanted so desperately to reach the conference finals and complete the turnaround they started three-and-a-half years ago. Maybe they wanted it too desperately. “They wanted it so much that we couldn’t think straight,” Rivers said. If they can regroup in Houston, as they once did in Memphis, this debacle will only be remembered as a footnote to a surprisingly compelling series. If not, it will go down as another excruciating episode, the kind they thought were history.