This is the greatest collapse in Clipper history. Which is saying something.
It’s also one of the greatest and most improbable comebacks in Rocket history.
When Chris Paul made a driving, twisting layup with 2:35 left in the third quarter, the Clippers went ahead 89-70. Los Angeles was in total control and on its way to its first-ever Conference Finals.
But from that point on the Clippers shot 5-of-27 (18.5 percent) including missing 14 shots in a row near the end of the game. They missed layups and open threes, shots they want and normally hit. Meanwhile the Rockets — using an unlikely lineup without James Harden — were 8-of-13 from three alone in that stretch, and outscored the Clippers 49-18 to close out the game. Corey Brewer had 15 points, and Josh Smith had 14 in the fourth quarter and was the defacto point guard, both guys hitting shots the Clippers would normally just let them take — but they found the bottom of the net.
The Clippers went into their prevent defense while the Rockets played with the desperation of a team that did not want its season to end.
The result was a furious comeback and a 119-107 Rockets win that forces a Game 7 Sunday in Houston.
“We never stopped believing,” Dwight Howard said after his 20 point, 21 rebound performance, where he played the entire second half. “Our faith was tested all night, as it has been all series, but we kept it together.”
“We were trying to run the clock out, and we stopped playing, and they kept playing,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “Once it got to eight you can just feel it…
“We missed wide open threes, layups, dunks. With each miss I felt the pressure mounted.”
Down 19 Kevin McHale went to a more defensive lineup, with Smith and Brewer on the court, with Dwight Howard in the paint, while Harden got rest. It wasn’t meant to be a long-term rotation, but it worked. Surprisingly, that lineup put up points — 40 in the fourth quarter — and won the game.
“They outplayed in every sense of the word down the stretch,” said Blake Griffin, who had 28 points on the night. “We took our foot off the gas, stopped defending, a lot of things.”
“We gave this one away, there’s no doubt about that,” Rivers said. “But it’s still 3-3, there’s still a Game 7.”
The question is can he get his Clipper charges mentally up for that game after a painful let down on Thursday night.
The game started well for Los Angeles. The Clippers started out on an 8-2 run, their defense was the key as they were getting stops. But they could not pull away from the Rockets, and then in the second quarter Houston stuck right with LA. They put up points, James Harden did a good job of attacking before the defense was fully set, and he was getting to the line. It was 64-62 Clippers at the half, in 24 minutes that didn’t see a lot of defense.
But the third quarter was all Clippers.
The Rockets shot 25 percent overall and were 1-of-8 from three in the quarter. James Harden shot 1-of-7. The Clippers played their best defense of the game and were getting stops then running off them. Meanwhile, Chris Paul had a dozen points, and the Clippers pulled away and led by as many as 19.
Then the fourth quarter happened.
And the Rockets season stays alive.
The end of the game was a perfect storm of the Clippers getting tight and missing makeable shots, while the Rockets hit shots they don’t normally hit — if Josh Smith wants to take a step-back three you let him. But of course on this night he drained it. Meanwhile Griffin — the best player so far in all the playoffs — missed three layups in a row at one point, one of them blocked by Howard.
This gives the Rockets a lot of momentum heading home, but the Clippers are already Game 7 tested these playoffs.
Things are going to be very interesting Sunday in Houston.