The Houston Rockets came back from the brink of elimination to advance to the Western Conference Finals after beating the Los Angeles Clippers, 113-100, in Game 7 on Sunday. The victory clinched a 4-3 series win for Houston after it fell behind 3-1, culminating one of the most surprising playoff comebacks in recent memory.
The Clippers appeared destined for their first conference finals appearance in franchise history after averaging nearly 120 points over the first four games of the series. In Game 4, Los Angeles rode a dominant 68-41 second half to a 33-point win.
The Rockets rallied through trying circumstances, easily winning Game 5 at home before pulling off a miraculous comeback win on the road in Game 6. The Clippers led by double digits in the second half of that game, but reserves Josh Smith and Corey Brewer teamed up to lead Houston from behind and extend the series once more.
In Game 7, the Rockets looked confident and unstoppable after being pushed against the ropes earlier in the week. It was a wire-to-wire win for Houston, whose lead extended to as many as 20 points. Outside of a few moments during a furious late comeback attempt, the Clippers looked out of sync all night.
James Harden showed why he was an MVP candidate all year, recording 31 points, eight assists and seven rebounds in a starring role. Next to him, Trevor Ariza stepped up with 22 points and seven rebounds. Dwight Howard (16 points, 15 rebounds) and Smith (15 points) were also productive in steady performances. In each of the four quarters, Houston scored 28, 28, 29 and 28 points, respectively.
Los Angeles got big numbers from its stars, but little help elsewhere. Chris Paul (26 points, 10 assists), Blake Griffin (27 points, 11 rebounds) and DeAndre Jordan (16 points, 17 rebounds) all had double-doubles. The rest of the team shot 31 percent from the floor, with J.J. Redick, Jamal Crawford, Matt Barnes and others falling short in the big game.
Now the Rockets are set to face the Golden State Warriors in their first conference finals appearance since 1997. The Clippers have a summer to figure out what's next after falling short yet again. This series felt like Los Angeles' best chance at a title run since putting together its current core, and after blowing a 3-1 series lead it'll be interesting to see the size of the changes to come. For Houston, the next step is figuring out how to stop Stephen Curry and company.
3 other things we learned
CP3 can't get to the conference finals for some reason. Paul will go down as one of this generation's best players, but his inability to get past the second round of the playoffs continues to be a black mark on his resume. This latest failure is arguably the most painful one yet given how well the Clippers had been playing just days ago, and now it's possible the team will undergo significant changes before next season. Paul looked great most of the postseason, so this certainly isn't the end of his title window, but at a certain point it's hard not to wonder when he'll capitalize on one of these opportunities.
The Clippers' wings weren't good enough. There will be a lot of dissection of the Clippers' core of Paul, Griffin and Jordan over the next few days, but those three actually played pretty well in Game 7. The real issue for this team, as it was all year, was a lack of steady production from the other positions. The team's shooting guard and small forward options -- Redick, Crawford, Barnes, Austin Rivers, Dahntay Jones -- just weren't good enough on both ends of the floor, especially over the last few games with a chance to clinch. You need the whole rotation contributing to beat good teams in seven-game series, and the Clippers didn't get that against Houston.
Houston's midseason pickups were the difference. It's fair to say that the Rockets don't reach the Western Conference Finals without the midseason additions of Smith, Brewer and Pablo Prigioni. In a series full of star players putting their skills to the test, it was the surprise contributions of Houston's role players that ultimately separated the two teams. Smith and Brewer were magnificent in the Game 6 comeback, essentially saving the season after the starters dug a huge hole. All three of Daryl Morey's pickups stepped up in the Game 7 win.
Howard and Harden were the driving force behind the Rockets' first trip to the conference finals since the days of Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley and Clyde Drexler, but they needed help. Morey deserves credit for finding it.
Play of the Night
Game 7 wasn't the most highlight-filled affair, but this stepback jumper from Harden left Rivers searching for his balance. It's also a nice microcosm of the mismatches on the wings that ultimately doomed Los Angeles.
3 fun things
This missed dunk by Jordan summed up the Clippers' day.
CP3 put a lot of effort into committing a foul on Howard.
Beloved broadcaster Craig Sager carved out some time to head to Houston and catch Game 7.