How The Rockets Rallied

The Houston Rockets completed a dramatic series comeback on Sunday afternoon at home against the Los Angeles Clippers. The 113-100 win in Game 7 marked the third straight win for Houston after they had looked nothing short of horrible in the first half of the second-round series.

ESPN commentator Michael Wilbon called them “dogs” on Pardon The Interruption and he was absolutely right. But the Rockets weren’t dogs in Games 5 thru 7.

This series will be remembered for what happened in Game 6. The Clippers had an 87-68 lead late in the third quarter on their home floor and not only blew it, they got completely blown out. The Rockets won the fourth quarter by a stunning 40-15 and won the game by double digits. In the end all three of Houston’s closing wins came by 12-plus points.

The statistic that stands out the most in boxscore reviews of the final three games is the 60-41 dominance Houston exhibited in Game 6. Dwight Howard was an absolute beast, with 21 boards on his own. Rebounding and getting to the free throw line often go in tandem.

Some of it is direct—offensive rebounds and putbacks are more likely to result in a foul. But I think the bigger reason for the correlation is intangible—teams that rebound are being aggressive and teams that are aggressive get to the foul line. In the sixth game, Houston was 32/47 from the foul line against Los Angeles’ 24/32. The rebounding and free throw advantages were the key to the win.

On an individual basis, Howard was the biggest hero of the comeback. He averaged 18 points/17 rebounds a game in the closing three wins. James Harden was at his best in Game 5, with a magnificent 26 points/11 rebounds/10 assists showing. Harden got his points in the final two wins, although he didn’t shoot the ball well in the process.

Another lesser known hero is Trevor Ariza, who had a 22/8 performance in Game 5, and then added 22/7 in Sunday’s clincher. While Ariza isn’t one of the Rockets’ name players, this really isn’t surprising when you think about it. Ariza was a key part of the Los Angeles Lakers’ championship team in 2009 and the one Houston player who is really battle-tested. It’s safe to say he’s going to vitally important if this team hopes to win its first NBA title since the Hakeem Olajuwon years of 1994-95.

Let’s close with the Los Angeles Clippers. There’s no denying how big a collapse this was. This is a franchise that has never been to the conference finals and they failed to close the deal after dominating the early part of this series and then nearly three quarters of play in a potential close-out game at home. It’s going to be a long summer.

In the bigger picture, this is the team I picked to win the NBA title and I’m probably not the only one who’s going to require future Clipper teams to actually do something big before I believe in them again.

But the natural media instinct to blame the best players doesn’t stand up to scrutiny here. Over the final three games, Blake Griffin’s points/rebounds numbers were 30/16, 28/8 and 27/11, all with efficiency. Chris Paul’s points/assists tallies were 22/10, 31/11 and 26/10.

I’m not sure what more these two were supposed to do. The Clippers’ depth was an issue all year. It nearly did them in against San Antonio, and now against Houston, a team with younger and fresher core players, it was fatal.

Since Griffin and Paul each make big money and have their TV commercials, I suppose it’s reasonable to say that they’re getting paid well for their trouble in terms of taking unjust criticism. But basketball fans interested in knowing the real reasons for the Clipper Collapse have to look at the supporting cast.