As I type this post, the replay of the Rockets' 119-107 win over the Los Angeles Clippers in Game 6 of their Western Conference semifinal series is playing on ESPN. Admittedly, I'm up late watching it just to reaffirm that the ending is the same as the one I saw earlier, that the basketball gods weren't toying with me, that I really did see a Rockets team that had died twice in LA earlier in the series and was on life support on Thursday night come all the way back from 19 points down in the second half to beat a Clippers team that seemingly had way more answers than the Rockets had questions.
And oh did I mention that the Rockets made this historic comeback with the MVP runner-up James Harden sitting on the bench? I didn't? Well, they did. In the gutsiest call of his four seasons as Rockets head coach, Kevin McHale opted to roll the dice and leave Harden, who was 5-20 from the field to that point, on the bench as the Rockets mounted their comeback in the fourth quarter.
So how did this happen? How did the Clippers cough up a 19 point lead late in the third quarter to a team that they'd beaten by 25 and 33 points on that very floor less than a week ago? Let's look at these key stretches:
LATE 3rd QUARTER: TERRENCE JONES BEGINS THE CPR
With around five minutes to go, Matt Barnes committed a very Matt Barnes-type foul on James Harden, intertwining arms on a reach in, clinging to Harden so that he could antagonize him, and baiting Harden into a technical foul. The good news was it was evident that the Rockets still had some fight left in them at a juncture in the game when, quite honestly, things had spun wildly out of control the last two times in this building. Still, the Clippers went on an 8-0 run from there to bring the score to 87-68.
It was at this point that Jones, who was switched out of the starting lineup for Josh Smith (more on him later) in Game 5 showed a little life that, frankly, kept the Rockets afloat. In a 2:07 span, Jones scored seven points of an 11-2 run to get the score back to 89-79, and keep the Rockets within shouting distance. More importantly, the Rockets answered the Clippers third quarter run at home with some bounce back the other way. Jones was the big reason why.
Amidst this stretch, James Harden was harmlessly subbed out for Trevor Ariza with 1:32 to go in the third quarter. This was the last we'd see of Harden for the night (in minutes that mattered).
8:51 LEFT IN 4th QUARTER: ENTER SMOOVE
With 8:51 remaining in the game and the Rockets finally having cut the Clippers lead to single digits, Kevin McHale called timeout, presumably to bring Harden back into the game in what would be the substitution that would close the gap and put some real game pressure on the Clippers. Let's be honest, somewhere in there we knew the "old Clippers" had to show their stripes at some point, right? Well, McHale made a game changing substitution, but it wasn't Harden. McHale brought Josh Smith into the game for Terrence Jones. This multilayered decision — Smith in, Jones out, Harden staying on the bench — would prove to be the decision that saved the Rockets season.
After a J.J. Redick three pointer put the Clippers up 97-85, the Rockets got a Corey Brewer three pointer and old fashioned three point play sandwiched around an Austin Rivers old fashioned three point play. The score was 100-91 with a little more than 7:00 remaining in the game. The next 36 seconds would be the stint that made Red Nation believe and turned the Clippers into a nervous CYO team for the rest of the night.
6:58, Josh Smith hits a three after stealing an errant Matt Barnes pass (suck it, Barnes), 100-94. Chris Paul comes back down and hits an easy layup, but then with 6:24 to go, Smith hits another three, and it's 102-97. It was at this point that you could feel the Clippers' collective butthole tighten up like it was being soaked in a deluge of lemon juice. The Clippers were one big stew of indecision and fear from this point forward.
5:56 LEFT IN 4th QUARTER: ROCKETS SCORE NEXT 15 POINTS
I can't express how huge Josh Smith was in the fourth quarter of this game. Words don't do him justice. At 102-97, Smith scored on a driving layup to make it 102-99, and then one minute later, fed Corey Brewer on a beautiful bounce pass for a dunk that tied the game at 102-102. After a Brewer three and a Smith free throw, Jason Terry hit a monster shot, the one that really began to tie the noose around the Clippers' neck, a 17 foot jumper that made it 108-102 with 2:27 to go, a full two possession lead in a game where the Clippers hadn't scored a field goal in over four minutes.
1:44 LEFT IN 4th QUARTER: THE DAGGER
After a Clipper timeout, they got the ball to Blake Griffin (who went from Ivan Drago killing Apollo Creed to whimpering, bloody Ivan Drago in a matter of a quarter of basketball), who promptly had his shot blocked by Josh Smith. At the other end, with the shot clock running down, Smith took a step back three pointer, the kind where you normally wind up screaming expletives at the television. Not this time. SWISH. 111-102, a three possession lead with 1:44 to go.
This was happening.
In the end, the Rockets scored 40 points in the fourth quarter. More importantly, they went on a 34-10 run after Josh Smith entered the ball game, entered the ball game at a juncture where everyone expected James Harden to come into the game. Of those 34 points, 31 of them were scored by the "Headband of Brothers," the trio of Brewer, Terry, and Smith — three guys who weren't here for the collapse against Portland last year, three guys who wouldn't let the Rockets collapse again on Thursday night.
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Instead, on a night where their MVP candidate was sick and his jump shot was sicker, those three guys channeled the fight. They carried Dwight Howard, who thankfully stopped getting low post touches (just not working this series for you, Dwight) and began doing ALL the little things, along with them. On a team with James Harden and Dwight Howard, the season was resuscitated by Terrence Jones and revived by three hungry veterans.
When the Rockets won the NBA title in 1995, Rudy Tomjanovich said they had at least four or five wins where he would wonder "How the hell did we just do that?" Every flawed NBA champion has to have a few of those. The Rockets are no doubt flawed, but on Thursday they fought, and they finally had their "How the hell did we just do that?" moment.
It remains to be seen if this group has what it takes to be a champion, but for one night at least, they gave us hope.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast.