The Scene: Game 6 of the 2015 Western Conference Semifinals between the Los Angeles Clippers and the Houston Rockets, or as most Clipper fans referred to them at the time, "the team that stole our two seed because the NBA's division-based tiebreaker system was developed sometime in the 1790's when players commuted to road games via oxen.". While the prospect of a Game 7 back in Houston looms with a Clipper loss, the mood within Staples is distinctively less anxious then you would expect for a postseason game in the Chris Paul era. Despite missing Paul for the first two games of the series, the Clippers have thoroughly outplayed Houston and clearly look like the better team, with "better' of course meaning the team without Jason Terry. For the first time in its postseason history, Clipper Nation might be verging on overconfidence--and in retrospect, the t-shirts given out pre-game may have been a little much.
A palpable (albeit foreign) sense of playoff optimism also permeates the living room of one Matt Heller, a Clippers fan since the Darius-Quentin-Lamar days who has become as eerily accustomed to watching the Clippers in the postseason as he is writing about himself in the third person. Matt has prepared for this playoff game the same way he has for every postseason bout the last five years--wearing the same unwashed boxer-briefs he wore during the Memphis Comeback in 2012, and calling his cable provider multiple times to demand a way for U-Verse to auto-mute Jon Barry.
Matt is joined on his couch by his best friend, Sam, a fellow Clipper fan since high school who has not washed his boxer-briefs since the day Stern vetoed the Lakers trade. Sitting across from them is Amy, Matt's new girlfriend and recently converted NBA fan who Matt met after Game 5 of the Oklahoma City series last year. Well, technically they met three months after Game 5, but it was only one month after the intervention from friends and family that forced Matt to start going outside again.
We pick up the action with about four minutes to play in the third quarter. The Rockets have kept pace with the Clippers through the first half, but the inevitable tide of superior talent is starting to break. The Clippers lead 84-68. Terrence Jones throws an awful lob to Dwight, who still might have been able to dunk it in his Orlando days. Instead the pass sails by him and he flashes an accusatory look at the ref.
Matt: "That's right, Dwight. That should have been a flagrant on the air conditioner."
Sam: "Good God this team is hate-able. I know we're America's team of being hated or whatever, but between Dwight and Harden and Terry...good God."
Amy: "Whoa here goes Blake..."
Blake grabs the rebound and does his fullcourt "Lebron but somehow more terrifying" freight train impersonation. Instead of doing that weird thing he sometimes does where he goes 100 miles per hour and then randomly slams the brakes at the top of the key, this time he hurdles towards the rim and finishes with a circus 180 over-the-head lay-in. Mike Tirico wets himself on air.
Sam: "Shades of Warriors Game 7 last year."
Amy: "Wow. You guys beat the Warriors last year?"
Matt and Sam: "Different coach."
Amy: "Coaches make that much of a difference?"
DJ emphatically rejects Howard at the other end, and the crowd at Staples nears a collective playoff orgasm. The Rockets are in complete disarray--even Doc can't stand to watch it anymore, and calls a timeout. After play is resumed, Chris Paul drives around a helpless Pablo Prigioni for a New Orleans Chris Paul-style reverse layup. Clippers 89, Rockets 70.
Matt: "Nineteen. God the Rockets are terrible."
Sam: "I know it's cliche to say, but they honestly don't belong on the same court as us. I mean, we beat the Spurs."
Matt: "We beat the Spurs"
Sam: "We beat the Spurs."
Matt: "We beat the Spurs."
Amy: "Jesus guys, you've literally been saying that on loop since last week."
Matt: "Sorry. I still don't believe it."
Sam: "You see, Amy, beating the Spurs in the playoffs is like the NBA equivalent of celebrating your bar mitzvah, having sex with the prom queen and paying off a 30-year fixed rate mortgage on the same night. We're a grown-up playoff team now. The Rockets aren't."
Amy: "Are the Warriors?"
Matt and Sam exchange a concerned glance, realistically picturing the prospect of facing Golden State in the Western Conference Finals. They recover.
Matt and Sam: "We beat the Spurs."
Dwight hits four consecutive free throws, and after some sloppy Clipper turnovers and a random Terrence Jones three, Houston rather abruptly cuts the lead to ten. But Jamal restores order with a corner three to end the quarter. Clippers 92, Rockets 79.
Sam: "Man, when's the last time you saw Dwight hit four consecutive free throws?"
Matt: "He's bizarro Shaq-- he hits them when they don't count. What does Terrence Jones shoot from 3? Twelve percent? We knew they'd make a run, but we're still up 13 heating into the fourth."
Sam: "And Harden looks like he's about to retire on the bench. J.J.'s defensive strategy of avoiding being dragged to the floor seems to be working."
Amy: "I have never seen you guys this relaxed for a Clipper game. During the Spurs series both of you were literally nauseous every time that Kawhi guy guarded anyone."
Sam: "Us and J.J."
Amy: "Weren't you guys also up 13 in that Oklahoma City game? And wasn't that with like 5 minutes left or something?"
A brief expression of distress falls over Matt's face. He then resumes a relaxed smile.
Matt: "Amy, I'm surprised you're bringing up Game 5 right now. You know we've done a lot of work together with Dr. Carla to get over that. And just like Dr. Carla says, Game 5 was simply a random coincidence of unfortunate events. It's ridiculous to think Tony Brothers and Raja Bell are conspiring specifically to ruin my life, or that the next time the Clippers are up late in a key postseason game a stray meteor will hit Blake in the bursa sac, or that a ancient gypsy curse was placed on the Paul household generations ago forbidding it from making the Western Conference Finals. We're the better team, and we're up 13 going into the fourth quarter at home. I'm going to try to enjoy this for once."
Sam: "And we beat the Spurs."
Amy: "Ok, I guess that sounds reasonable. I just don't want to see you get hurt again."
The fourth quarter begins like the third quarter ends, with choppy play on both sides. Corey Brewer converts on an awkward-looking drive to the basket, and later after a beautiful DJ swat, hits an awkward-looking corner three. Doogie responds with his own awkward looking and-1. Clippers up 100-88, 7:38 to play.
Sam: "I can't believe Corey Brewer is killing us this much."
Matt: "I can't believe I'm this ok with Austin Rivers playing crunch time in the postseason."
Brewer responds again with an even uglier drive to the rim, barreling into Blake just outside the restricted zone while a prayer layup is answered. A 50-50 call goes the Rockets way, and Brewer converts the and-1.
Amy: "I can't believe the amount of space between Corey Brewer's eyes."
A Clippers inbounds play on the other end results in a turnover. Josh Smith dribbles idly above the arc, and then rears back for three.
Matt and Sam: "We'll live with that."
Buckets. Clippers 100, Rockets 94, 6:57 remaining. Chris goes into "no way this is fucking happening again" mode and blows past a halfcourt pick for a surprisingly uncontested layup. Clippers up 102-94. Jason Terry comes around a screen and finds Josh Smith behind the arc at the wing. Smith rises up...
Matt and Sam: "We'll live with that."
Buckets. Again. Clippers 102-Rockets 97.
Amy: "Why do you guys keep saying that?"
Sam: "If we go down because Josh Smith becomes Ray Allen in this game, I'm ok with that."
Matt: "Would you really be ok with that tho?"
Chris again tries to right the ship, but misses a fadeaway jumper. Dwight bricks a couple free throws, DJ misses a dunk. Smoove fakes a three, and then drives to the rim for an uncontested layup. Clippers 102, Rockets 99. Matt and Sam instinctively begin to curl into the fetal position.
Matt: "Wait, are we sitting in the exact same places as we were for Game 5 last year?"
Sam: "Stop being crazy dude."
Matt: "Switch seats with me."
Sam: 'I'm not switching seats with you."
Blake gets stuffed at the other end by Dwight. After Trevor Ariza misses a three and Howard collects the Rockets' 500th offensive rebound of the quarter, Dwight gets fouled and makes 1 of 2. Blake misses one of those ugly lefty hooks over an outstretched Dwight. Smoove collects the rebound and charges up the court, finding an open Brewer streaking to the basket. Houston 102-Clippers 102.
Sam: "Ok, I'll switch seats with you now.
Amy: "Wow that was fast. It was just 9 like 2 minutes ago."
Matt: "What the hell is happening to our offense? I feel like we haven't made a field goal since Game 4."
Sam: "I'll say it. I don't trust Blake in the fourth quarter of playoff games. If we hadn't won that Spurs series, the whole narrative would be him coughing up Game 2."
Matt: "C'mon dude. I mean I trust Chris more but Blake has been Oscar Robertson with better endorsement deals this postseason. Plus Josh Smith could drive over him with a truck in the final minutes and they wouldn't call it."
On cure, Blake misses another layup contested by Smith. There's alot of contact, but no call. After a McHale timeout, Jason Terry comes around a screen to find an open Brewer in the corner. J.J. rushes for the close-out, but it's too late. Houston 105-Clippers 102.
Matt: "Corey Brewer and Josh Smith."
Sam: "It's one thing if it's Harden, or even Ariza. But..."
Matt: "Corey Brewer and Josh Smith."
Sam: "It's like if Spencer and CDR suddenly erupted for 30 apiece."
Amy: "Hey, in fairness, I bet the Rockets fans were saying 'I can't believe Austin Rivers is killing us' in Game 4."
Matt and Sam glare at Amy. The Clippers offense continues to sputter. Jamal rises for a three...
Sam: "Oh God, Jamal..."
Matt: "I rather have Josh Smith shooting those..."
And misses. Chris misses a 3 on a subsequent possession, and after a Jason Terry step-back jumper, the Clipper offense again produces ugly shots .Josh Smith idly dribbles at the top of the arc. He sets and fires over DJ's outstretched arms...
Matt: "I will bet you anything this is going in."
Smith buries the dagger. Mike Tirico waxes poetic about how Smith is really a poor man's Klay Thompson. Somewhere in Detroit, Stan Van Gundy gulps down his third White Russian of the quarter. Houston 111, Clippers 102, 1:44 remaining.
Sam and Matt sit completely shellshocked.
Matt: "Do you think we could get Tony Brothers to officiate the last two minutes of this game? The league owes us one..."
That giant vacuum from Space Balls rolls over Staples Center. Blake fouls out a minute later, and Spencer Hawes enters the game.
Amy: "I guess it's officially over now."
Jamal misses 10 more 3's, and the game simply ebbs away into the ether. Houston 119, Clippers 107.
Tirico: "One of the most stunning comebacks for a team facing eliminating in the history of the NBA..."
Silence descends on Matt's living room. Both Matt and Sam lay prostrate on the floor.
Amy: "Hey, there's still Game 7. And look, to be honest, you guys have been puffing your chests out a little too much this series. You've never sounded like that before. I mean, my brother is a Laker fan, and you started reminding me of him a little bit..."
Sam looks at Matt. Matt looks back at Sam.
Mat: "I think we should break up."