With three minutes remaining in the third quarter of Thursday night's Western Conference Semifinals Game 6 at Staples Center, the Houston Rockets looked about an hour away from packing up their lockers for the offseason. The Clippers had just opened up an 89-70 lead to take control of the game and appeared to be in absolute control over a Rockets squad that had scored all of six points in the second half to that point. Viewers in more eastern timezones could have been forgiven for going to bed, assured that the result was in hand.
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What occurred next will be remembered as one of the most surprising and shocking comebacks in NBA history. The Rockets went on an 11-5 run to end the period to cut the lead back down to a manageable 13 points, but the real craziness occurred in the fourth quarter. Faced with the end of a broadly successful season, Houston out-scored Los Angeles 40-15 in the final period and took the lead with an overwhelming 22-2 run over all but the final seconds of regulation. The eventual 119-107 victory was even more insane due to the fact that MVP runner-up sat on the bench for all but the final minute, when the Rockets were already up nine points. Against the odds, Houston has new life and an opportunity to advance to the conference finals in Sunday's Game 7 at the Toyota Center.
This result was not predictable in any reasonable sense of the word. The Rockets franchise had lost all 49 previous playoff games in which they trailed by 10 or more entering the fourth quarter, and the team had not had a bigger postseason comeback since the 1995 NBA Finals vs. the Orlando Magic, when they won a game in which they had trailed by 20. The win probability graph of Thursday's game explains exactly how weird it was (via Inpredictable):
If you can't tell, that steep drop means that things went really, really wrong for the Clippers.
So, how did Houston do it? With a lot of effort, talent, and luck. The Rockets have been criticized throughout this series for playing without a sense of urgency, but the comeback featured a collective defensive effort and several cases in which they simply beat the Clippers down the floor. It started with interior defenders Josh Smith and especially Dwight Howard, who defended the rim with one of his finest sustained periods of excellence since his best days in Orlando. His presence kept Blake Griffin from dominating inside as he had earlier, and the Clippers were unable to knock down reasonably open spot-up jumpers to make the Rockets pay. In part, that's because wing defenders Corey Brewer and Trevor Ariza did a quality job of challenging shots, even if they were occasionally late.
The Rockets' offensive output was more surprising, because it came without Harden, a player whose MVP case depended on the idea that his team would have had massive trouble scoring without him. These events certainly don't nullify that argument, but it does provide context of how weird this was. Houston rolled out an attack of Jason Terry, Brewer, Ariza, Smith, and Howard — a pretty standard lineup for them in that it featured four players capable of shooting three-pointers (if not always well) and Howard. It worked better than anyone could have imagined, with the 37-year-old Terry looking like his much younger self, Ariza knocking down a few open shots, and Brewer (15) and Smith (14, all in the final seven minutes) momentarily turning into superstars with a combined 29 points in the quarter. Brewer hit several long-range shots and slashed to the rim with abandon, while Smith silenced his (almost always correct) doubters by nailing a trio of three-pointers during the Rockets' biggest run.
If it's not clear, this was not a very normal turn of events, to the point where the best explanation of the outcome may be to say that Houston got lucky. Even the most loyal fans would not have expected Brewer and Lee to dominate crunch time against an opponent featuring Chris Paul and Blake Griffin at home. But the Rockets didn't just get a bunch of positive breaks — they absolutely earned this even if they happened to have everything go right at once. They never would have been in the position to benefit from so much good fortune if they didn't work to get there.
If the Rockets are going to win Game 7 and the series, though, then they will probably need to avoid putting themselves in such a big hole to begin with. Houston came out with a startling lack of energy and allowed several easy transition buckets in the first few minutes simply due to failing to get back after their own made shots. Those mental lapses were thankfully brief, but they were far from the Rockets' only troubles early on. Harden missed his first four field goal attempts as the offense relied largely on Dwight Howard, who had another strong start with nine points in the first quarter. Given those struggles, the Rockets were somewhat fortunate to finish the period down just 29-25.
They took advantage of that narrow margin in the second with the sort of basketball that most expected from them this series. While Harden continued to shoot poorly and went just 4-of-13 from the field in the first half, he went to the line seven times in the second quarter for 11 before the break (all made) on his way to 21 points. That was part of a team-wide effort to get freebies — Houston shot 17-of-22 from the stripe in the first half with all five misses coming from the 1-of-6 Howard. At the same time, role players like Ariza and Terrence Jones (nine points on 4-of-5 FG in 13 minutes) added value to ensure that the Rockets were not one-dimensional. Up 58-53 with 2:00 remaining in the half, the Rockets looked primed to challenge the Clippers until the final buzzer.
Not content to let a good thing alone, head coach Kevin McHale decided it would be a good idea to start intentionally fouling DeAndre Jordan. The immediate result was a bad one for Houston as Jordan made both his freebies, but it got worse when Doc Rivers employed the same tactic on Dwight Howard on two straight possessions. Howard missed all four of those attempts to allow the Clippers several chances to cut into the lead, which they did fairly quickly via a closing 11-4 run that put them into the break up 64-62. Suddenly, the hosts had the momentum and apparent advantages with the excellent play of Griffin (22 points on 9-of-12 FG) and no real struggles from key players.
That dynamic appeared to reach a reasonable conclusion as the Clippers built what seemed like an insurmountable lead. J.J. Redick knocked down a three-pointer on the first possession of the third quarter to get things started, but the real story was the quality of the L.A. defense, which forced Harden (1-of-7 in the period) and others into contested and questionable shots. Houston's lack of scoring was joined by a lack of composure — Howard picked up a flagrant-1 and technical within the span of a few possessions, and Harden joined him with his own tech a few minutes later. By the time Griffin finished this phenomenal reverse lay-in at the 4:11 mark, the Clippers looked well on their way to the first conference finals appearance in franchise history:
If they're to reach that goal, it will have to happen in Houston in Sunday's Game 7. History suggests that the Rockets have the upper hand, chiefly because a road team has won an NBA playoff Game 7 just 24 times in 119 opportunities. At the same time, they just experienced the intensity of such a moment in the first round vs. the San Antonio Spurs. Of course, the Rockets just robbed them of what was an extremely good opportunity to close out the series, and there's no guarantee that they'll get a second chance. And, for whatever reason, the Clippers appear stunned whenever the Rockets give full effort.
Whatever happens next, we shouldn't soon forget what the Rockets accomplished in Game 6. Comebacks don't come much more improbable — this one featured a team that looked to be in control at home go ice cold, saw several much-maligned role players turn into stars, and found Kevin McHale willing to sit Harden during the most important minutes of the team's season. The Staples Center crowd was appropriately stunned, just as the Rockets were the right amount of excited on their way back to the locker room:
— James Starks (@JamesStarksKPRC) May 15, 2015
Game 7 almost assuredly won't be the this weird. With some luck, though, it can be just as exciting.
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