Obviously that wasn't the way we wanted this to go. Too many misses, too many turnovers, too much Trevor Ariza, too many Rockets free throws. Somehow, the Los Angeles Clippers were never really in Game 7, which is really tough to explain. The Clippers have gone on runs all season, but suddenly in Game 7 -- nothing.
It didn't help that they kept making stupid mistakes that killed their own chances. After trailing at halftime by 10 points (they were lucky to be even that close frankly) they came out of the locker exactly as one would have wanted them to -- the defensive intensity was dialed up and they shut the Rockets down on multiple possessions to start the third quarter, forcing Kevin McHale to call a timeout. The Clippers open the second on an 11-4 run to cut the lead down to just three. However, they would get no closer, and even in that 11-4 run were the seeds of their downfall.
Of the four points the Rockets scored in the first three and a half minutes of the second half, three were a gift from the Clippers. After J.J. Redick had stripped James Harden's shot attempt and taken the ball, Redick inexplicably threw an outlet pass to Matt Barnes -- who wasn't expecting it and was already turned to run up court. Instead it was Ariza who collected the loose ball, and drained a completely uncontested three -- one of six treys he made on the day.
And why? Redick was under no pressure after securing the ball. He wasn't falling out of bounds. He had not yet used his dribble. In the hierarchy of ball handlers, he ranks higher than Barnes -- why was he throwing an outlet to Barnes in the first place? Chris Paul would be expecting that pass -- even power point Blake Griffin would be looking for it. Barnes wasn't, and why would he be?
That play was one of three Clipper turnovers in the first three minutes of the third quarter -- after they had just been lambasted at halftime by coach Doc Rivers for turning the ball over too much! That's as they were mounting an 11-4 run! Imagine what they could have done had they not turned the ball over all those times. (To be fair, the offensive foul turnover that Ken Mauer called against DeAndre Jordan was a laughably bad call, but you get a few of those every game.)
Redick's gift to Ariza was among five key plays -- four turnovers and an offensive rebound -- that more or less determined the game in my opinion.
At 5:45 with the lead at eight, Pablo Prigioni stole a routine inbound pass from Griffin to Paul. This was after a dead ball -- not after a made basket, but after a whistle, so Griffin and Paul had no excuse not to realize that the sneaky Argentine was lurking about. Not to mention that Prigioni had come up with an almost identical steal in the first half with the same three players involved. The third quarter steal led to another three -- this one by Prigioni.
At 1:53 of the third, with the lead still hanging at eight, the Clippers played good defense to force Terrence Jones into a miss -- and Prigioni stole the rebound from a better-positioned Griffin. Prigioni immediately kicked the ball to a wide open -- guess who? -- Ariza for another three. At that point the Rockets werr up 11 -- with nine points coming on three possessions that the Clippers handed to them in the quarter.
That third one seemed to unravel the Clippers -- Griffin turned the ball over on back-to-back possessions in the final 90 seconds leading to three more points, and it all added up to an 11-2 run that stretched the lead to a game high 17 in the last two minutes of the third. Sadly, most of this had little to do with great Houston defense -- it was just a lot of sloppy play from the Clippers.
By the time the Clippers got serious, it was too late. An 11-1 run cut an 18 point lead down to eight, but they'd dug too deep a hole and they could get no closer.
So what happened to the team that a week ago was briefly favored to win the NBA championship? They just didn't play well.
The team that committed the second fewest turnovers in the league in the regular season at just over 12 a game gave the ball away 18 times in Game 7 -- most of those the result of simple lapses in concentration. Redick (6), Griffin (5) and Paul (4) combined for the vast majority of Sunday's miscues.
The team that shot the third highest three point percentage in the league during the regular season at .376, missed 70 threes, three-fourths of their attempts, over the course of their epic three game collapse.
One might conclude that it was a case of players who were overwhelmed by the moment; Redick in particular looked like he just didn't want the ball at times. Still, a storyline of "The Clippers weren't ready for the big time" is far too simplistic, and completely ignores the first round, when they faced even more pressure and played magnificently to eliminate the defending champs.
So what's next for the Clippers? Simple. The off-season. And then next season. Losing in this manner hurts, but there's not really a good way to lose. They'll keep the core together, they'll re-sign DeAndre Jordan, they'll try to make a move or two but with their limited flexibiliy it won't be easy. But there's absolutely no reason not to give Griffin, Paul and Jordan another go at this. That's as good a big three as there is in the NBA, and you don't overreact to a playoff loss -- no matter how disappointing it is.