LOS ANGELES – Chris Paul, equal parts stunned and frustrated, stood by himself near the center of the Staples Center floor late Thursday after the final buzzer sounded on one of the most epic collapses in NBA playoff history. Paul's teammates quickly headed to the locker room, but he lingered before darting to the scorer's table to have some words with a referee. Clippers coach Doc Rivers yelled for him to let it go and leave the floor.
After blowing a 19-point lead in a game in which they were just minutes from securing the franchise's first trip to the Western Conference finals, Paul and the Clippers had much bigger problems than the referees following their 119-107 loss to the Houston Rockets in Game 6 of the best-of-seven second-round series.
"It's awful to watch," Rivers said. "It's awful for our team, and we have to figure out in the next 48 hours how to get [the players] back because we can't get this one back. We gave this one away."
The Clippers have lost two straight closeout games after previously leading the series 3-1. Now, after falling apart at home, the Clippers face a deciding Game 7 on Sunday in Houston.
"We didn't finish," Paul said. "We just got comfortable."
Another loss, and the Clippers' dreams of a first championship will die. In a city where the Los Angeles Lakers boast 16 trophies, the Clippers are still trying to bury their miserable past. As one Lakers fan wearing a Kobe Bryant jersey departed his seat late in the collapse, he could be heard telling an usher, "I'm a Lakers fan. I'm good."
On this night, the Clippers had no one to blame but themselves. With 3:04 left in the third quarter, Paul made a free throw to give Los Angeles its biggest lead at 87-68. With 1:33 remaining in the third, the Rockets subbed out MVP runner-up James Harden, who had 23 points at the time. The Clippers eventually took a 13-point lead in the fourth quarter.
Minutes into the final quarter, Rivers became nervous something could go terribly wrong, even with Harden still watching from the bench.
"I just didn't like the way we were playing," Rivers said. "You could see it."
Led by Josh Smith and Corey Brewer, the Rockets opened the fourth with a 23-10 run to tie the game at 102 with 4:21 left. The momentum dramatically shifted, and Brewer followed with a huge 3-pointer to give Houston a 105-102 lead that silenced the stunned Clippers fans.
"We were trying to run the clock out, and we stopped playing," Rivers said. "They kept playing, and then once it got to eight, you could just feel it."
Said Clippers forward Blake Griffin: "They outplayed us in every sense of the word down the stretch. We took our foot off the gas, stopped defending, a lot of things."
Harden watched the end of the comeback on his feet in front of the bench. Sensing the upset was complete, Smith nailed a 3-pointer with 1:44 left to push the Rockets' lead to 111-102, then yelled, "Get out of here!" to the crowd.
"Coming out of the timeout, I told our guys that with James on the bench, they play a lot more free and they play with a lot more confidence," Paul said. "And they did."
Harden finally subbed back into the game with 1:01 left with Houston comfortably ahead 112-103. The Rockets outscored the Clippers 40-15 in the fourth quarter.
"When you give up 40 points, forget the offense," Rivers said. "When you give up 40 points, you've stopped playing, clearly. And when you don't score but 15, with the way we score, those aren't good, either."
Rivers gave his best pep talk in his stunned locker room afterward, but he probably sounded like Charlie Brown's teacher to the players.
"What can you say tonight that they hear?" Rivers said. "I did say stuff, but I guarantee you they have no idea what I said. When you lose a game like this, you're pretty down. You pretty much want to go home, and I'm sure that's what they're going to do."
The Clippers at least have this to lean on: Paul, Griffin and DeAndre Jordan have won three Game 7s together. One was on the road against the Memphis Grizzlies in 2012. The other two were at home in the first round against the Golden State Warriors last season and against the San Antonio Spurs two weeks ago.
"We don't have a choice but to forget about this game and move on," Paul said. "We have another Game 7 on our hands. Unfortunately, we're very familiar with Game 7s."
The pressure will only grow for the Clippers as Sunday approaches. Paul has never advanced past the second round in his five other career playoff appearances while Griffin hasn't in three previous appearances. As a franchise, the Clippers have not advanced to the conference finals ever.
"We'll see," Paul said. "It's going to be a hell of a story Sunday."