Just a few days ago, the Los Angeles Clippers seemed poised to move onto the team’s first Conference finals in franchise history. That was about the last time the Los Angeles Clippers seemed poised.
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The Clippers turned the ball over 18 times and whiffed on several key defensive sets in the team’s 113-100 loss on Sunday, as the Houston Rockets overcame a 3-1 series deficit to earn a spot in the NBA’s version of the Final Four. Feeding off of a rabid Houston crowd that had seen this sort of dance before, the Rox also fed off of James Harden’s 31 points, seven rebounds and eight assists as they ascended to the third round of the playoffs for the first time since 1997.
The Rockets were not without fault in victory, it should be noted. Harden turned the ball over seven times himself, and both teams combined for 15 first quarter miscues. Houston was stellar in its approach, however, revealing a steady focus that could have gone to pot with all the pressure on and a home crowd expecting big things.
The Rocket defense, save for one “whaddya gonna do?” stretch from the Clips in the third quarter, was masterful. The third quarter was the frame that saw the Clippers whittle down what was a 10-point halftime (and, at one point, 18-point overall) lead down to a three point deficit just a few minutes in, but the Rockets are to be endlessly commended for the way they stiffened up the defense’s chassis and whipped the ball around offensively.
Trevor Ariza continued his brilliant playoff turn, offering six three-pointers and 22 points in this crucial win. Dwight Howard chased off what would have been several typically unabated Blake Griffin drives to the middle of the paint, with forward Josh Smith expertly moving his feet underneath Griffin the entire way. Smith’s confidence continues to soar, and for good reason – he hit 2-4 three-pointers but also did well to mix things up offensively on his way toward 15 points in Game 7.
Howard, meanwhile, “only” tossed in 16 points and grabbed 15 rebounds. His current role is secure – he’s to mind the store defensively while Harden orchestrates elsewhere. That setup led to the second seed in the Western Conference this year, and one of the more stunning comebacks in NBA history.
This comeback from a 3-1 deficit isn’t “stunning” because the Rockets are a bad team, mind you, but because of how poorly they played throughout the first four games of these Conference semifinals. That poor play even carried over to all but 15 minutes of Game 6, but if the last five quarters of Houston Rocket basketball are any indication, the waiting Golden State Warriors better start going over their notes.
The last five quarters of Clipper basketball, save for that sound stretch in the third quarter on Sunday, is more than worrying. Chris Paul managed 26 points on 20 shots with 10 assists, and while even his desperate misses felt like they should have gone in, he was forced into endless tough looks from the field. Blake Griffin again led the team with 27 points with 11 rebounds and six assists, but they had to go it alone.
Guard J.J. Redick made first three-pointer to start the game, but he missed his next four and played a terrible floor game on the offensive end. Redick had six turnovers, but because they were of the “what are you thinking?”-variety it seemed like he coughed the ball up twice as much, and because they also were so obvious they led to several easy Rocket scores. J.J. needed 12 shots to score his 10 points, often rushing his attempts.
Jamal Crawford needed 18 shots to score 17 points, and at several points in the contest the typically-sweet shooter was outright aiming his looks. He’ll finish the postseason with a 36 percent shoot mark from the floor. Austin Rivers could not replicate his Game 3 magic in the last game of he and his father’s season, missing three of four shots from the floor while looking frustrated on both ends … and that was it.
The Clippers bench remained wafer-thin. The only contribution Glen Davis made beside his one basket was to act as a punchline when Blake Griffin confused him briefly for DeAndre Jordan prior to tossing a failed lob Davis’ way.
In the end, the Rockets did not work up the Hack-a-Jordan game plan against DeAndre. He missed five of seven looks from the line, but offered three blocks, four steals, 17 rebounds and 16 points. In fact, the only notorious Hack-a-Whomever happened after the two minute mark of the fourth quarter, when off the ball intentional fouls are not allowed.
Chris Paul, mindful of his team’s eight-point deficit, committed a laughable and legal loose ball foul on Dwight Howard:
Howard missed both free throws on the other end, but J.J. Redick missed a three-pointer on the ensuing possession, one that managed to hit the top of the glass above the box and somehow rebound back to the strong side, just about sealing Los Angeles’ fate.
DeAndre’s lone moment of ignominy wasn’t even deserved, upon further inspection. Jordan missed a lob dunk in the fourth quarter as the Clippers attempted yet another comeback, but it was off of the rare poor Chris Paul pass:
Jordan received on-air criticism for somehow not being able to catch a basketball with two hands that was thrown six feet from the paint and behind him before being able to throw down at the rim.
In the end, that’s five Clippers with double-figure scoring, but only three of the 11 Clippers that played made any sort of positive impact, and only seven Clippers played significant minutes.
It’s one thing to have a terrible bench, the Clippers were one of the best teams in the NBA this year and made it to within a game of the Western Conference finals with a terrible bench. It’s another thing to have the counted-upon rotation members fall short, with Crawford and Redick combining to miss 20 of 30 shots and starter Matt Barnes contributing absolutely nothing.
This is the portion of the program where the Rockets thrived.
Ariza was stellar, and though Jason Terry missed five of six shots he steadied the team in ways that counterparts Redick and Crawford could not. Corey Brewer came off the pine to hit half his shots and score 11 points, while reserve point guard Pablo Prigioni led the Rockets with a +20 mark. The Rob Brydon-lookalike stole two different Clipper inbounds passes, one resulting in an Ariza three-pointer, and another steal led to a three-point swish of his own. With less than two minutes left his offensive rebound off a Terrence Jones miss led to another dish to Ariza for a three-pointer that put Game 7 away. He had four assists and no turnovers in 20 minutes of on-ball action.
Rocket depth made the difference, to be sure, but this James Harden and Dwight Howard pairing is to be feared.
The team’s confidence level, coming off of three desperate wins and one of the more remarkable playoff comebacks in modern history is also to be feared. The Golden State Warriors have been paying attention all year, but this is not the same Houston Rockets team they saw earlier in the regular season.
It’s not even the same one it watched earlier in the week on its TVs.
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