Rockets’ James Harden, role players step up while Clippers roll over — Houston wins Game 7

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Sunday, it was just more of the formula that had won Houston 56 games this season: James Harden playing at an MVP level, good defensive effort, and role players stepping up when called.

For the Clippers, it was the culmination of the biggest collapse in franchise history. Which in the case of the Clippers is saying something.

From the opening tip the Clippers turned the ball over, missed their threes, and got little from their role players — they were just sloppy. From the opening tip the Rockets played with the energy of desperation, but also efficiency — they knocked down their open looks, and they defended the paint well.

“For the most part we stayed in attack mode,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said. “I thought James (Harden) was fantastic, 31 points, big free throws down the stretch. He got us going with some passes early.”

The result was a 113-100 Houston win in a Game 7 they led wire to wire.

Houston advances and will fly to the West Coast to face Golden State in the first game of the Western Conference Finals starting Tuesday night.

“I think finishing that first series, we kind of took this series slow in the beginning. It kind of bit us in the butt,” Harden said of the Rockets falling down 3-1 in the series before becoming only the ninth team in NBA history to come back from that and advance in seven. “But we fought back, we fought three really hard games and we came away with the win.”

“We got destroyed,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “The 50-50 game (toss up plays), turnovers to start the game… I love my team, and I love the fact they wanted to win so bad that I thought, in my opinion, we almost couldn’t win… they all wanted to win so bad they tried to do it all on their own.”

James Harden had 31 points on 20 shots to lead the Rockets. But he had help: Trevor Ariza was 6-of-12 from three and had 22 points, Dwight Howard had 16 points and 15 rebounds, even Pablo Prigioni was making key steals and plays off the bench.

Harden was doing it from the outset — he came out in playmaker mode. It helped that the Clippers were sloppy and had seven turnovers in the first quarter — one just trying to inbound the ball after a Rockets’ make — plus hit just 1-of-7 from three in the first frame. Call that a Clippers’ hangover from Game 6, call it Game 7 nerves, call it the few expletives Doc Rivers did during a timeout, the fact is it left the Clippers stepped into a hole they could not climb out of the rest of the game.

Mostly because the Rockets’ wouldn’t let them out.

Harden was rolling downhill — as Kevin McHale likes to describe it — and had 12 first-half points on nine shots. Also, the Rockets hit 6-of-12 from three to start the game, knocking down the open looks Harden was generating.

While the Clippers weren’t getting stops, it was the offensive end that was there bigger problem. The game had a fast pace, 53 possessions in the first half, and the Clippers only gave up 1.06 points per possession, not a bad number. Problem is they scored only 0.87 per possession — they were 4-of-14 from three in the first half, 7-of-25 for the game. Remove Blake Griffin and Chris Paul from the equation and the Clippers were 9-of-27 from the field in the first half and 19-of-49 for the game (38.8 percent).

The Rockets led 56-46 at the half, and the Clippers were lucky it was that close.

Los Angeles opened the second half 4-of-4 shooting, quickly cutting the lead to three. But as they had all game to that point, the Rockets had an answer — a driving dunk by Harden and a Josh Smith three and it was up to eight again. The Rockets went on a 25-11 after the game got within three. Rockets make run at the end of third quarter behind Pablo Prigioni, who had a couple steals from Griffin to make quick points, plus he hit a three and got to the line. It was 85-68 with one quarter left and the Rockets were in total control of the game.

Part of this was the Clippers lack of depth and fatigue — they looked physically tired and mentally tired as the game wore on. They expended a lot of energy on those comebacks, and that finally caught up to them when the Rockets made their big push at the end of the third. The Clippers gave it their all in desperation late in the fourth, but for three games now had looked flat when it mattered most.

Chris Paul had 26 points and 10 assists, Blake Griffin had 27 points.

Rockets GM Daryl Morey deserves credit here for the win, too. His moves to bring in depth like Trevor Ariza and Prigioni paid off on the big stage. Doc Rivers the GM’s biggest signing last summer, Spencer Hawes — Rivers wanted him more than Paul Pierce — barely even play in Game 7.

There are going to be a lot of questions about the Clippers as they head into the summer.

The Rockets’ summer hasn’t started yet — they live to play another day.