With 2:17 to go in the third quarter, the Los Angeles Clippers held a commanding 89-70 lead over the Houston Rockets and had a 97.7 percent win probability. What transpired after that point was nothing short of a punch to the stomach. The Clippers faded down the stretch as the Rockets outscored them 40-15 and stole Game 6 from right out under the nose of Los Angeles. It forced the series back to Houston for a decisive Game 7 on Sunday. This will be a look back at the collapse by the Clippers.
In an unfortunate series of events for Los Angeles, the Clippers missed wide open shots while the Rockets got improbable shot making from two of the worst shooters in the league. After a dismal third quarter for the Rockets, they proceeded to pour it on in the fourth quarter and inject new life into their team while James Harden sat idly by on the bench and watched his teammates salvage not just their season but also his reputation for folding in big games.
While up by 15 points with roughly 1:15 to go in the third quarter, the Clippers inbounded the ball to Jamal Crawford and casually ran into their set which was a simple ball screen for J.J. Redick. Redick comes around the screen by Glen Davis and gets an absolutely wide open three from the top of the arc. His defender, Trevor Ariza, can’t even make an attempt to defend the shot in any fashion. No one steps up to contest the shot but it doesn’t matter as Redick ultimately misses it.
Over the last two games, J.J. Redick has been utterly abysmal on wide open shots. As have the Clippers as a whole. Last night, Redick missed all four of his three-point attempts with a defender at least six feet away from him and was 2-for-8 with a defender four feet or more away, which is classified as an "uncontested shot." During the regular season, Redick shot 45.8 percent on uncontested threes and 47.6 percent with a defender at least six feet away. Factoring in the last two games, Redick has gone 3-for-16 on uncontested threes and 1-for-8 with a defender at least six feet away. There’s no telling if that’ll keep up but the likelihood of that happening for a third straight game is not necessarily high.
Part of the Rockets comeback started late in the third quarter. You already saw the Redick missed open three, which could have pushed the lead back up to 18 points and really perhaps iced the game. Instead, two possessions later, the Rockets come down in transition and get a wide open three for Terrence Jones. While Jones did shoot 35.1 percent on threes during the regular season, he was just 1-for-11 in the playoffs prior to this shot. And he was 0-for-4 in the series. Perhaps he was due. We’ll never know. But it was still not a bad shot for the Clippers to give up. The only thing they could have done better was close out to him and recognize him running into the shot. This is possibly on Blake Griffin, who got stuck watching the ball rather than running back to locate his man in transition. It leads to the open shot and the Clippers lead is cut to ten just like that.
Early in the fourth quarter, with the Clippers lead still at twelve points, the Rockets have a side-out-of-bounds and inbound it to Dwight Howard. On the weakside, Corey Brewer runs off of a simple Josh Smith screen and catches the ball while Austin Rivers tries to play catchup after going under the screen. Rivers gets caught leaning too far to his left and Brewer uses a quick move to his left and scores on a relatively simple layup. Three things went poorly for the Clippers here. First off, Austin Rivers got beat due to poor footwork and positioning. Secondly, Glen Davis stuck too close to Josh Smith for no reason. And, thirdly, DeAndre Jordan did not need to step out onto Dwight Howard. It vacated the paint and left Jordan way out of position to contest the layup. Had Jordan accurately played it by staying at the elbow, he could have rotated back in time and challenged the shot. It was just a fundamental breakdown all-around.
A couple possessions later, with the Clippers lead back to twelve, the Rockets run a really simply set. Jason Terry brings the ball up the court and passes to Terrence Jones. On the strongside of the play after passing the ball, Terry sets a simple rub screen on Jamal Crawford that frees up Trevor Ariza for three. The problem for the Clippers is that Crawford doesn’t fight through the screen at all despite Chris Paul giving him enough room to slip it underneath and Jason Terry giving him enough room to go over the top. Perhaps the Clippers could have switched here but Crawford has to do a far better job of fighting through this screen. It’s Jason Terry screening you. You can’t just die on it. It’s inexcusable and lazy.
Yet again, though, the Clippers get their lead back up to twelve points with eight minutes to go and seem like they still might pull this one out. Even at this point, win probability gives you a 94.7 percent chance at winning. This play sums up the Clippers collapse in a nutshell really. It’s just a confluence of errors. To sum it up, the Clippers defend this really well. Ariza runs off of a screen from Howard but Redick closes out well enough to force Ariza to put the ball on the floor. Ariza runs into Jordan who swats the ball away only to do the single dumbest thing you can do as a defender. Jordan saves the ball under his own hoop but compounds the issue by saving it to the near corner which happens to be right where Corey Brewer is standing. Brewer hits the three and the lead is down to just nine with under eight minutes to play.
After a turnover, the Rockets get out and run a little bit but the Clippers defend it well in transition so much so that it forces the Rockets to reset on offense. And then the irrational part of this game really kicks into high gear. Josh Smith probes with the ball after getting it back from Trevor Ariza and takes a three-pointer. He nails it. Coming into this game, Smith was only 2-for-12 from three. He went 4-for-7 for the game and some of them you just have to live with. In reality, the Clippers don’t even play this one too poorly. Jordan initially closes out to force Smith to rethink what he’s doing and it works. Smith gives a little stutter step and then steps back into a three. It’s a lower percentage shot for the second worst three-point shooter in NBA history (minimum 1000 attempts). Maybe Blake Griffin could have jumped out more to contest it but it’s Josh Smith shooting a three. You live with those shots. It just so happened that it went against the Clippers here.
Before reviewing the rest of the tape, let’s take a step back and realize what actually had to happen in the fourth quarter for the Houston Rockets to win this game. First, they did it without James Harden. Harden was atrocious last night outside of his second quarter barrage. So much so that Kevin McHale opted not to put him back into the game despite Houston staging their comeback. He was that bad; especially defensively. Secondly, two of the five worst three-point shooters of all-time – Josh Smith and Corey Brewer – got irrationally hot in the same quarter. They did it the entire Dallas series but had been ice cold this series until last night. They combined to go 5-for-7 from three in the fourth quarter despite being a combined 4-for-30 in the first 23 quarters of the series. Yes, that’s right. Two of the five worst three-point shooters in history made more threes in the fourth quarter of an elimination game than they had in the prior 23 quarters of this series. Lastly, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin went a combined 2-for-12 in the quarter and no one else stepped up to hit a shot. After holding Houston to 5-for-25 in the third quarter, the Clippers did even worse by going 4-for-22. Murphy’s Law broke Lawler’s Law last night.
Despite all of this, the Clippers still had an eight point lead with 6:30 to go. The Rockets have their initial set snuffed out before Jason Terry drives into the paint and kicks it out to Josh Smith on the wing. The Clippers don’t even play this poorly. Blake Griffin has to defend Dwight Howard’s roll to the basket after DeAndre Jordan helps out on the pick-and-roll. Sure, you’re leaving the weakside shooter open a little bit but that shooter is Josh Smith in this instance and, of course, he nails the shot. Griffin does a nice job of helping and recovering. He jumps to contest the shot but it still goes in. The Clippers just have to live with that shot. If Josh Smith is hitting threes, you just have to live with it. The thing that makes it so painful is the time that he did. The fourth quarter of an elimination game. It’s a twist of the knife.
Quintessential Clippers collapse here. They get a side-out-of-bounds and run a little slip pick-and-roll between Paul and Jordan. Griffin steps up to fill the void and gets a good pass from Paul at the free throw line. Griffin then makes another good read, this time by seeing where the help defense is coming from. He initially looks to lob the ball up to Jordan but the Rockets dig down on Jordan with Terry, who is guarding Matt Barnes here. Griffin reads it and hits Barnes on the wing for a really good look at three. Barnes misses the three by quite a considerable distance and it’s another punch to the stomach for the Clippers when any offense would have awakened them. Perhaps Barnes’ shoulder is hurting more than he’s letting on. Perhaps not. We won’t know until after the series. But it was still a good look for him and one that he has shown quite capable of knocking down the last couple years.
In a tie game with four minutes to go, the Rockets use a variance of screens to get the ball to Jason Terry. Terry then gets trapped by Jordan and Paul but still somehow finds a way to get a skip pass over the top of the defense and finds Corey Brewer in the corner for three. The fault here is with J.J. Redick. On Dwight Howard’s roll, Blake Griffin does a good enough job of walling Howard off and Terry actually makes a bad read here. The right read is to Josh Smith. Instead, he makes a dangerous pass over the entire floor and hits Brewer. Redick was too far away but still makes a solid contest of the shot. Brewer drains it and the Rockets are up there. Once again, an all-time bad three-point shooter made the Clippers pay in a big way down the stretch. It’s not even poor defense that much. Redick got caught too far away, yes, but he still recovered well and Terry still made the wrong read on this play.
On the ensuing possession, the Clippers get the ball to Griffin at the post and he finds Paul back on the perimeter. They then run into their little pick-and-roll set that sees Paul make a beautiful pocket pass to Griffin at the free throw line. Griffin once again reads the defense correctly and hits Jamal Crawford in the corner for a three. Crawford’s defender, who is Corey Brewer on this play, had dug down to stop any potential lob to Jordan. It’s a mirror image of a few plays ago when Barnes missed his three. It’s another great look for the team and a look that misses the mark. It was on line but didn’t fall. In the closing stages of this game, all the bad shooters for Houston got as hot as rocket fuel and all the solid to good shooters for the Clippers got as cold as an iceberg.
This was the nail in the coffin. The dagger to the heart. The pulling of the plug. Let’s be honest, this was one of the dumbest shots taken in NBA history. And it worked. Why? Because irrational confidence and overwhelming randomness. Josh Smith probes .. and probes .. and probes with his dribble before giving it to Trevor Ariza who then gives it right back to Smith. And then Josh Smith probes .. and gives a stutter step .. and then dribbles into a stepback three that he nails in the face of DeAndre Jordan despite a really good contest. It pushed the Rockets lead up to 9 with 1:44 to go and the game was over. In essence, this summed up the fourth quarter.
It didn’t matter what the Clippers did. It didn’t matter the quality of the shots they got or the quality of shots Houston got from some of the worst shooters in history. It didn’t matter that James Harden was out for the duration of this comeback. It didn’t matter that better shooters got better shots and worse shooters got worse shots. It didn’t matter that the Clippers once had a 19-point lead. It didn’t matter that one team was at home and the other was on the road. It just did not matter. None of it did. In the pantheon of sports tragedies for the Clippers, this ranks right up there. In fact, this might be the new number one on that list considering what was at stake.
No one knows what’s going to happen in Game 7. There’s no one on this planet who does. That’s a fact. In the Film Room for Game 5, I wrote two vital things. The first was that the "problem with letting a team win a Game 5 at home to draw within 3-2 in the series is that it not only gives them some confidence after being massacred in the two prior games, but it also limits the number of games that you have to negate the randomness of the postseason." The randomness showed up in the fourth quarter of Game 6 and bludgeoned the Clippers over the head with a ball-peen hammer.
The second, and possibly more important, thing was "[if] this gets to a Game 7, anything can happen. And it usually does in a Game 7 when a random roleplayer steps up and helps his team get to the next round." That’s what happens in a Game 7. Very seldom is it the stars who win that game. In Game 7 against Memphis in 2012, the Clippers got 11 points and 10 rebounds from Kenyon Martin off the bench while also getting 13 points from Nick Young. In Game 7 against Golden State last year, the Clippers got 22 points from Jamal Crawford off the bench. In Game 7 against San Antonio this year, the team got 17 points from Matt Barnes and 16 points from Jamal Crawford. Anything and everything usually does happen in a Game 7. The Clippers are resilient. We’ll see how much so on Sunday. The roleplayers for Houston got them to a Game 7. It’s up to the roleplayers of Los Angeles to finally show up after going M.I.A. the last two games.