LOS ANGELES — History was expected to be made in Los Angeles Thursday night.
The Rockets, however, won Game 6 dominated the fourth quarter of Game 6 to push the series to a final Game 7 in Houston. At one point, it was 89-72, with the Clippers looking ready to secure their first trip to the Western Conference Finals. A 33-10 fourth quarter turned everything around – all with James Harden playing just one minute in the final quarter.
From the coaching staff to fans to media – the fourth quarter was a collective shoulder shrug.
What just happened?
First Half Recap
The first half of Game 6 – in similar fashion to the previous five games of the series – was fairly even. The Clippers went up early in the first quarter, but were up just two (64-62) at the half after a defense-less second quarter.
Blake Griffin led the way in the first 24 minutes with 22 points, while James Harden led Houston with 21 points on 4-of-13 shooting.
Prior to Game 5, Doc Rivers had mentioned he was a big believer in intentionally fouling poor free throw shooters when leading.In an interesting stretch to close the half, L.A. used the “Hack-a-” strategy to close out the quarter on an 11-4 run.
According to TeamRankings.com, the Clippers – regular season games included – rank No. 3 in the league in average third quarter margin.
Over the last three games, however, the Clippers rank No. 1 overall with an average third quarter margin of +11.7 points. Whatever is being discussed at halftime is working magic because the Clippers are going for the knockout punch coming out of the half.
This time, though, the Rockets wouldn’t go down so easily.
An unbelievable 32-13 run, a majority of which was put together with Harden on the bench, tied the game at 102 with 3:59 remaining in the fourth quarter.
“I thought they [Clippers] tried to run the game out,” Rivers said. “I thought we got very tentative offensively. It’s awful to watch, it’s awful for our team.”
James Harden hardly played in the fourth quarter—and the Rockets ended up outscoring the Clippers 40-15 in the final 12 minutes.
“We defended and we ran,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said in his postgame press conference. “We got stops. Josh made a couple big shots, Terrence Jones kept us around in the third quarter. The guys just kept attacking. They played their tails off on defense.”
“Yeah, we did [collapse],” Rivers said after the game. “I thought we were trying to run the clock out and we stopped playing. What could have went wrong, went wrong. We missed wide open threes, lay ups, dunks, and each miss, I thought the pressure mounted. It happens, but it’s hard to happen when you have a lead like that.
The story of the fourth quarter was narrated by the most unlikely of Rockets, Josh Smith. Coming into the game, he was 2-of-12 from beyond the arc.
In Game 6, with the season on the line, Smith finished the night with 19 points on 5-of-9 shooting from the field, including 4-for-7 from three-point range.
“Resilience,” Smith said when asked after the game what it took to get this win. “We got a no quit mentality, came out played hard. I just wanted to continue to bring energy. Just being aggressive. Not wanting to go home this early – this is what we fought all season for, home court.”
Dwight Howard quietly put together a 20-20 performance, finishing Game 6 with 20 points, 21 rebounds and 2 blocks on 7-of-12 shooting, including 6-of-16 from the free throw line.
According to Elias Sports Bureau, Howard’s 20-21 makes him the first player with 20 points and 20 rebounds in a road win when facing elimination since Shawn Kemp in 1997.
“Josh played lights out,” McHale added. “A couple big blocks, the energy level on the defensive end was huge for us. Josh made a couple big shots, Dwight was rebounding, that group was just very dynamic.”
The Clippers shot 1-o-16 to finish the game.
“Not angry at each other,” Griffin said after the game. “Disappointed with how we played as a team, but there’s no pointing a finger with our team. They outplayed us, we took our foot off the gas.”
“I think they’re probably a plethora of emotions when something like this happens,” Rivers said about his team in the locker room.
Chris Paul led the Clippers with 31 points and 11 assists. Blake Griffin finished with 28 points, 8 rebounds and three turnovers.
Game 7 will be Sunday. The Clippers will get two days off for the first time since between Games 1 and 2 of the first round. Tickets currently start at $248 for the game and for fans looking to make the trek east, hotels near the Toyota Center start at just $69 per night, according to Hipmunk.com. Round trip flights to Houston range from $250-$450, so travel expenses could actually be less expensive than it will cost for a ticket to the game.
“We have to figure out in the next 48 hours how to get them back,” Rivers said. “It’s still 3-3 and we have a Game 7.”