Has anyone checked on Steve Ballmer? His $2 billion purchase is turning the stunning loss into performance art.
The Los Angeles Clippers have suffered some notable heartbreaks in recent postseasons, some very recently. This one tops, or bottoms, them all.
Trailing by as many as 19, entering the final frame down 13, having been left for dead by everyone from the home crowd to the television announcers to Twitter's murmuring crowd, the Rockets pushed the Clippers' collective foot away from their throat to take a crushing win in Los Angeles, forcing the series back to Houston for Game 7.
If a game could actually be over before the clock said so, then this game was over. The Clippers rode a 28-17 third quarter to a lead that felt insurmountable. Their energy and execution dispirited the Rockets, turning the visiting team into an unraveling, disobedient, disorganized mess, and frustrating MVP runner-up James Harden into a series of futile stepback jumpers. Chris Paul scored 11 of his 31 points in the third quarter -- he would finish three rebounds shy of a triple-double -- and Blake Griffin made two almost indescribable plays that seemed destined to be the signature highlights of what should've been the franchise's finest night: a spinning, reverse layup off glass and a LeBron-esque chasedown block following a turnover. According to at least one win probability formula, the Clippers had secured as high as a 99.3% chance of victory.
Then the fourth quarter began, and with Houston star Harden pinned to the bench until the final minute -- Kevin McHale has some stones -- the Rockets came back, slowly, incrementally, undoubtedly, like the thunder appropriately storming over the city. Corey Brewer teamed with fellow long-armed pests Trevor Ariza and Josh Smith to stifle the Clipper offense into missing 18 of their final 22 field goal attempts. Having gotten the stops, the unlikely Houston heroes scored, combining to make 7 inexplicable fourth-quarter threes.
There was interesting play in the first half -- both teams looked simultaneously energized, perhaps for the first time this series -- but frankly it was all overshadowed by the astonishing second half.
Blake Griffin, a true force-of-nature for 36 minutes, finished the third quarter with 28/7/1. He finished the game with 28/8/2. DeAndre Jordan fell short of double-digit rebounds for just the second time in this postseason, and it may not be a coincidence that the other instance was in the 27-point first round shellacking in San Antonio. Outside a few flash plays, the Clipper center was outworked and outplayed by Dwight Howard, who tallied 20 points and 21 rebounds, 7 on the offensive end.
Offensive rebounds were a major side story tonight, and may have singlehandedly kept the Rockets in a game they should've been out of from the opening tip. They finished with 15 to the Clippers' 4, coming up with a second chance seemingly every time the Clippers earned a key defensive stop, preventing the home team from accelerating away.
The other major side story was the Clippers' continued cold shooting. I said in the preview that they wouldn't miss 75% of their threes again. I was right. They missed almost 77%. Paul, J.J. Redick, Matt Barnes, and Jamal Crawford combined to make just 6 of 26 attempts from deep.
The officiating was inconsistent, an anticipated side story due to the presence of the embattled Scott Foster, but had little role in deciding the outcome of the game. There were bad calls, and you'll have two full days to discuss those in the comments, but if anything, the refs may have held things together for the Clippers for a few minutes longer than they deserved. Blake and DeAndre were given a lot of defensive leeway in the final quarter, and several possible blocking fouls were overlooked to keep the Rockets from assuming the lead even more quickly than they did.
Some games tell a tale of two halves. This game told a tale of the final two quarters. In the third, the Clippers continued building their championship narrative. They were businesslike, beyond the gaffes of the past and ready to close out an inferior opponent. In the fourth, the Rockets shed their own negative labels, albeit more recent ones. No longer were they immature, combustible, or casual. They were resilient, forceful, even dominant.
Game 7 is Sunday in Texas. How will this story end?