The Houston Rockets looked down and out last week after getting blown out at home in game five, and trailing big in game six. But that didn't stop "Clutch City" from earning a fifth chance at beating the Golden State Warriors this season.
In a game seven between elite offenses, game seven started about as beautifully as a drunken sprint through the swamp. The teams exchanged turnovers and bricks like a group of friends who...like to share turnovers and bricks a lot. However, the Clippers also shot poorly throughout, struggling to top 40-percent from the field. The Rockets, however, saw their shots begin to fall in the first half as they opened up a 10-point halftime advantage.
Despite a big push in the third, the Clippers fell behind by as much as 20 points and looked lost. But with three minutes left in the fourth quarter, they opened up a flurry that cut the lead all the way down to single digits. They would get no further, as the Rockets rallied to put the semifinals series away.
James Harden put up 31 points in the win, despite 7-of-20 shooting. In truth, the story of this series was the back-to-back performance from maligned "stretch" four Josh Smith. He followed up game six's fourth quarter explosion with 15 points on 10 shots in 22 minutes of action. With his three-balls falling, Houston became a dangerous team with size, spacing and interior scoring. Dwight Howard joined his front court mate with another huge performance, posting 16 points and 15 boards.
NBA stats-geeks (like yours truly) will caution fans not to expect a repeat performance from Josh Smith, whom teams tend to cut when they want to get good. But then again, we already said that after game six. If Josh Smith continues this hot streak (or even revisits it occasionally), the Warriors could have their hands full guarding a lineup full of three-point shooters. But if Houston plays anything like it did in the first five games of this series, they could find themselves out of the playoffs in very short order.
Houston's James Harden has had an underwhelming playoff career to this point as a leading man, and he was matched by Chris Paul, perhaps the league's greatest player to not reach the Conference Finals (ever? Someone help me out here). At some point, for a sports fan, this series was always going to be about which player would rewrite his history, first. Or at worst, which player would choke harder. But Chris Paul was magnificent in this series, as he almost always is in the playoffs. The Clippers stars didn't choke this one away - they simply lost, fair and square. Their best players showed up, and even some of the role players punched above their weight class (who had Austin Rivers as a game MVP at -900? Does Doc Rivers read SB Nation?).
In truth, the star Clippers largely outplayed the Rockets' stars (despite Dwight Howard partying like its 2009). It was the secondary guys, like Josh Smith, Trevor Ariza (22 points on 6-of-12 three point shooting) and Corey Brewer (11 on 50-percent shooting) who really separated these two teams. All season long, the Clippers bench had been a glaring weakness, and after consecutive seven-game seriesses [sic], it came back to haunt them like the ghost of Rajon Rondo's confidence. Results like this really ought to make Warriors fans happy their own roster has no such questions.
The Rockets will celebrate tonight, and then travel to Oakland to face a powerhouse Warriors squad. After answering the bell against age-old foe Memphis, we can only hope they keep up the intensity against an improving Rockets team that believes itself to be a team of destiny.