Having come this far, through all that it took to get there, the Rockets would not be stopped. Not now. Not with so many obstacles overcome or demolished and so much of what they wanted all along in sight.
From Dwight Howard missing half the season to falling into a 3-1 hole in the Western Conference semifinals against the Clippers; from Terrence Jones battling a nerve condition for months and collapsed lung for weeks to the Clippers leading by 19 in an elimination game, the Rockets just kept moving.
They kept advancing until they had one game to win to reach to the Western Conference Finals for the first time in 18 years.
With a Game 7 to test them again, the Rockets rolled from the start, leading by as many as 20 points in the fourth quarter and never looking back at a few Clippers runs as anything they could not handle. With one final kick, the Rockets roared past the Clippers, 113-100, on Sunday and reveled with shouts into the roar of 18,463 in Toyota Center celebrating not just what they had accomplished, but how they did it.
“It feels amazing,” Jones said. “Just the togetherness and everything ewe brought to do this, to make this possible, it just shows so much heart … and the belief and the way we never gave up. It just carried us.
“Just to go out there and prove to the world and prove to ourselves that we’ve got that toughness and that fight to win three straight and move on to the next round is just amazing.”
The Rockets went from a comeback for the ages to a start-to-finish roll to return them to the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 1997, becoming just the ninth team ever to advance after trailing in a series, 3-1. After so many years unable to break through, they did it the hard way, going from a disheartening stumble in Game 1 to soaring in Game 7.
“Amazing,” Corey Brewer said. “Anytime you advance it feels good, but the way we did it makes it even sweeter. Coming back Game 6 and coming out here and taking care of business at home, that’s what it’s all about. Playoff basketball.”
They got this far with a win that was in many typical of the season in which the Rockets went from one issue to the next. In that first preseason meeting they had pledged to one another that they would respond to whatever would hit them, but never could imagine they would be hit with so much through the season or the series.
“I don’t think was any doubt in anyone’s minds or hearts that we couldn’t win,” Dwight Howard said. I think that’s what carried us.”
They relied on the depth of their roster and its reinforcements until by Sunday’s Game 7, a team thought to be entirely about its stars received sublime performances from nearly every member of the rotation.
“We just had a lot of guys that played well,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said. “That’s what it takes. It just takes a lot of guys playing well to be a team. I told our guys, “(being down) 1-3 feels really, really, really bad, especially when they stomp on you in Games 3 and 4. But it was just our guys that just kind of ground it out. Our guys rallied together. They just did a hell of a job.
“Everybody that stepped on the floor really contributed.”
James Harden and Dwight Howard still led them, with Harden scoring 31 points with eight assists and seven rebounds and Howard getting 16 points on 6 of 8 shooting with 15 rebounds.
The Rockets also got off to their strong start and a 15-point first-half lead because Josh Smith provided nine first-half points and strong defense on Blake Griffin. Jason Terry kept keep Chris Paul in check in the first half. Corey Brewer provided his usual fourth-quarter finishing kick, scoring eight of his 11 points to help close out the win.
Even guard Pablo Prigioni had a stretch of scene-stealing stretch when the Clippers had closed to within eight late in the third quarter. He grabbed an offensive board to set up a Trevor Ariza 3. He stole a Blake Griffin inbounds pass for the second time to set up a Harden drive. He stripped Griffin to go in on his own break, with his free throw steadying the Rockets and giving them an 8-0 run to a 16-point lead.
Finally, Ariza delivered the knockout punch. The only Rockets player to play in every game this season, Ariza drained his sixth 3-pointer of the night, a dagger from the corner that pushed the Rockets lead to a safe 11 with 55.8 seconds left, beginning the celebration with a bop down the floor filled with air punches.
By then, there was no doubt about how they did it.
“Just understanding what we do, knowing who we are, digging deep, looking ourselves in the mirror and telling yourself to strap it up and let’s go,” Ariza said. “That’s all it takes.”