LOS ANGELES – Clutch City has company.
After two decades in which the legends that have loomed over all Rockets teams as a standard none could match, the Rockets on Thursday pulled off the sort of inexplicable and stunning comeback worthy of their championship ancestors.
Never since has a Rockets team trailed by so many in a playoff game and somehow rallied to win. Never have the Rockets seemed so beaten, so over in this series in which the Clippers had collected routs and seemed certain to add another. Never has Rockets coach Kevin McHale taken a greater gamble, sitting his star, James Harden, for the entire fourth quarter, unflinchingly staying with what was working
With the Clippers almost popping the champagne on their way to their first trip to the Western Conference Finals, the Rockets rolled through a spectacular fourth-quarter comeback, their largest of the season to shock the Clippers,119-107, and send the series back to Houston for Game 7 on Sunday.
The comeback from a 19-point deficit was the Rockets’ largest in the post-season since the 1995 NBA Finals when the Rockets came back from down 20. Their 13-point hole heading into the fourth quarter was the largest they had ever escaped in a playoff game.
“We all just want to win, because we understand how important this season and this time is to us,” said Dwight Howard, who had 20 points and 21 rebounds, the first 20-20 game in an elimination game since Shawn Kemp in 1997. “What happened 20 years ago was great for the city and great for that team, but we have to make our own history. This is a great time to do it.
“We won’t quit. You know, we had every opportunity to tuck our tails and to sulk in defeat, but instead we rallied around each other. We continued to believe, and that’s why we got the win.”
They got the win because late in the third quarter, Terrence Jones gave the Rockets a lift, keeping them in a game. They won because Corey Brewer drove the Rockets through the early minutes of the fourth quarter, sparking the comeback on his way to 15 fourth-quarter points. They won because Josh Smith began raining 3s, scoring 14 points in the fourth quarter as the Rockets pulled away.
They won because their make-shift second unit defended with unwavering intensity and then ran the other way while the Clippers wondered what was happening.
They won with Harden sitting out all of the final quarter. After he led the Rockets surge in the second-quarter, Harden made just 1 of 7 shots in the third quarter, taking a seat with the Rockets down 17. As the Rockets rallied without him, McHale stuck with the group that had brought the Rockets back.
“That group that was out there in the fourth quarter just had great composure,” McHale said. “They had a great sense that they were really … were going to accomplish something. They were going to make it a game. They weren’t going to go down without making it a game, not only made it a game, we actually ended up winning by 12, which I never would have guessed that going into the fourth, but I was just proud of that group and how they played.
“I was thinking about putting him back in the game, but those guys earned the right to finish that game, one way or the other. After a while, he had sat there long enough and those guys had a good rhythm and they kept getting stops and I’m like, I’m just going to let them go.”
As the Rockets took off, the Clippers crumbled. They missed 15-consecutive fourth-quarter shots, many coming at the rim or on rushed, but open jumpers. They made just 4 of 22 shots in the fourth quarter with Chris Paul tacking on a 3 at the buzzer as the teams headed to the locker rooms.
“They outplayed us in every sense of the word down the stretch,” Blake Griffin said. “We took our foot off the gas, stopped defending, a lot of things. Got to be better.
“You could tell we kind of got stunned, and we didn’t respond well.”
When the Clippers were rolling, Griffin had put the exclamation point on their run with a 360-degree spin in the air on a layup. He was 12 of 15 for 28 points after three quarters, then missed all five of his fourth-quarter shots.
“There was times where it just seemed like everything was going their way,” Dwight Howard said. “Blake hit 360, 180, I don’t know what it was, and I said, ‘Man, this is crazy.’ But we pulled together, we just kept saying we’re not going to quit, we’re not going to give up, we done come too far just to end it like this, and we just kept fighting.
“Josh hit some big shots. Everybody played great tonight, and we never quit. That’s why we got the win tonight. We kept believing, no matter how tough it got out there, because there was some rough times out there. As a team, we never gave up on each other.
The Clippers did not give up. There was not time for that. But they did break down, missing the sort of shots that had built the lead and led to the blowouts over the weekend.
“You know, I thought we were trying to run the clock out, and we stopped playing,” Clipper coach Doc Rivers said. “They kept playing, and then once it got to eight, you could just feel it.
“I don’t think they thought that they had the game in the bag. I thought they thought, we walk the ball up the floor. I thought we got very tentative offensively, very few people even wanted to shoot in stretches, and you know, it happens. But it’s awful to watch. It’s awful for our team, and we have to figure out in the next 48 hours how to get them back, because we can’t get this one back. We gave this one away. There’s no doubt about that.”
Whether the Clippers gave it away, the Rockets took it or some combination of both, the teams head to Sunday’s Game 7 rolling in opposite directions. As Game 6 demonstrated, that does not mean much.
“I played in a lot of games in my life and you can get the vibe of games and think you have the chance to win,” Brewer said. “Like Trevor (Ariza) said at the beginning of the fourth – he said we are going to win a championship, but we have to win this game first.
“If we win this game right now, that’s how you become a champion.”
There is a long way to go for that, a long time ago, the Clutch City Rockets proved that to be true. Their heirs now have a game worthy of that legacy.