Curses! That’s about all there was to say after the Clippers suffered the most significant collapse in team history during a 119-107 setback against the Houston Rockets in Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals on Thursday night at Staples Center. Here are five takeaways from a game that tied the best-of-seven series at three games apiece:
1. Not even Lawler’s Law could save the Clippers. The crowd was roaring when Chris Paul made a reverse layup to put the Clippers ahead, 89-70, with 2 minutes 35 seconds left in the third quarter. At that point, the algorithms of Numberfire.com gave the Clippers a 94.71% chance of winning a game that would have pushed them into the conference finals for the first time in franchise history. They were still ahead, 100-88, after an old-fashioned three-point play by reserve Austin Rivers with 7:38 left in the game. That’s when they started to play the equivalent of a prevent offense, hesitant to shoot and increasingly unsure of themselves after their offense began to stall. The Clippers went 6:45 without a field goal after Paul’s driving layup with 6:47 left and the Rockets closed the game on a 31-7 run. “Each miss, I thought the pressure mounted, honestly,” Clippers Coach Doc Rivers said.
2. This was more crushing than the Clippers’ meltdown in the final minute of Game 5 in the conference semifinals last season against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Yes, the Clippers lost a seven-point lead in the final 49.2 seconds of that game. But they had Game 6 at Staples Center, where the support of the home crowd nearly nudged them to victory. This time, the Clippers lost leads of 19 points in the third quarter and 13 in the fourth quarter on their home court, knowing all the while that a defeat would send them to Houston for Game 7 on Sunday. “We took our foot off the gas, stopped defending, a lot of things,” said Clippers forward Blake Griffin, who missed all five of his shots and went scoreless in the fourth quarter after scoring 28 points in the first three quarters. “Got to be better.”
3. The Clippers have arguably outplayed the Rockets in 17 of 24 quarters in a series that’s somehow tied. You can give the Rockets the final 1 1/2 quarters of Game 2, all four quarters of Game 5 and the final 1 1/2 quarters of Game 6. Everything else has belonged to the Clippers … except the series lead.
4. Doc Rivers will not be listing Game 6 on his general manager’s resume. The Rockets won this game largely thanks to Corey Brewer and Josh Smith, players they added via December moves. Brewer’s 15 points in the fourth quarter matched the Clippers’ collective output and Smith’s 14 points in the quarter nearly matched it. The Clippers’ big off-season acquisition, Spencer Hawes, went scoreless and their midseason acquisition, Austin Rivers, scored five points on two-for-eight shooting. The Rockets' reserves outscored its Clippers counterparts, 37-16.
5. The Clippers will need to get creative to bounce back for Game 7. Maybe some reverse psychology is in order. Maybe the Clippers should skip the fourth-quarter footage and gather in a room to watch “The King of Comedy.” The odds do not favor a Clippers comeback after dropping back-to-back games in the series. Road teams are 24-95 in Game 7s in NBA playoff history. Basketball-reference.com still believes in the Clippers, giving them a 53.9% chance of winning the final game of the series. On the plus side, every Clippers playoff series victory with the Paul-Griffin-DeAndre Jordan trio has come in a Game 7, though never in the second round. The Clippers logged Game 7 victories in the first round over Memphis in 2012, Golden State in 2014 and San Antonio earlier this month. Of course, this is a different challenge entirely. “It’s hard today,” Doc Rivers said late Thursday night. “It’ll be hard probably [Friday], but by the time we lace it up, they’ll be ready to play. You have no choice.”