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Praise for Clippers rings hollow after Rockets bury them

Clippers became trendy West finals and NBA title pick after two blowout wins ... then got blown out in Houston

They are the hottest team in the NBA! They are the favorites to win the NBA championship! They are more athletic, more skilled, more determined and . . .

Hold up. Sorry. Excuse us for interrupting the recent glorious speculation surrounding the Clippers to interject a gory truth.

They are a team that just got knocked flat. They are a team that just got embarrassed silly. They are a team that was whipped by the struggling Houston Rockets on Tuesday night to frighteningly crack open the door on a playoff series that had been considered slammed shut.

What was supposed to be a Clippers close-out game turned into a Clippers close-out sale, the Clippers giving a deeply discounted effort, competing at half-price, and now in at least remote danger of giving away the store.

The final score was 124-103, and the final verdict could be seen and heard everywhere.

There was Clippers Coach Doc Rivers, shouting into the TNT cameras after a flailing and flopping first quarter in which it was obvious that only one team had brought fire.

"They're playing so much harder than us it's a joke," Rivers said.

There was Rivers again, throughout the second half, stomping from the bench to the foul line after calling timeouts to remind his team to fight.

"They played like they were the desperate team and we weren't very desperate," Rivers said. "We didn't play with the urgency that we played [with] throughout the playoffs."

Then there were his players, missing 14 of their first 18 shots, losing seemingly every fight for a loose ball, watching the Rockets dunk off everything from rebounds to inbounds plays, running in five different directions on offense.

The scoring trio of J.J. Redick, Jamal Crawford and Austin Rivers was all about that brick, combining to make just eight of 33 shots. The inside presence dried up when DeAndre Jordan got into foul trouble, and the Clippers were outscored 64-46 in the paint.

"We talked about it all day long before the game . . . be the hungrier team," said Chris Paul, who scored 22 but is still physically hampered defensively. "But you could see they were more aggressive."

Shooters wild. Defenders lost. Energy missing. Toyota Center rocking with hope. As bad as the Clippers' allowing the Rockets to narrow this series to three-games-to-two were the Clippers' giving the Rockets a glimmer of hope.

James Harden, who pushed the Clippers through the lane, now has hope that he can get to the basket. Dwight Howard, who shoved the Clippers inside, now has hope he can stay under the basket. And Trevor Ariza, who nailed four three-pointers and played swarming defense on Redick, now has hope that he still matters.

That hope now has a chance to carry over to Game 6 at Staples Center on Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. The Rockets are still alive, which means the possibilities are still endless.

"I thought we just had more juice," said Rockets Coach Kevin McHale.

Rivers didn't voice it, but a certain nagging question was clearly expressed throughout the game during the numerous times he threw up his hands and rolled his eyes.

This was the team that won Games 3 and 4 over the Rockets by a combined 58 points, the second-largest consecutive-game margin in the history of seven-game NBA series?

This was the team that, following Sunday's blowout at Staples Center, was ordained as the NBA's next big thing, the popular favorite to not only advance to the first Western Conference finals berth in franchise history, but to actually, eventually win this year's NBA championship?

In the last few days, no team in the NBA playoffs had been surrounded with a bigger buzz than the Clippers. Is it possible that during that time, no team had grown more distracted? Now, given their history, perhaps nobody should be more concerned.

Just eight of NBA 227 teams have overcome a three-games-to-one playoff deficit, so the Clippers should still win this. However, those same sort of stats declare that they must win it all in Thursday's Game 6, avoiding a winner-take-all game in Houston on Sunday at all costs.

Throughout NBA history, in the 119 times teams have played a Game 7, the road team has won only 24 times.

Jason Terry may have been thinking of that stat when he voiced the Rockets' goal: "One game only and get the win. Then we will be back here in the friendly confines of Toyota Center."

The Clippers' Blake Griffin absolutely was thinking of the numbers when he said, "You look at statistically Game 7s on the road. No one wants to put themselves in that position."

Perhaps the worst thing about all this is that Doc Rivers was quietly worried it might happen. Before the game, he cited the clamoring of outside voices and admitted he was curious about their effect.

"As Pat Riley said, there are so many peripheral opponents to your team outside the team," Rivers said. "I try to keep them engaged. This will be a good thing to see. It's something we'll find out."

Turns out, it was awful to see, and unsettling to learn. The peripheral opponent won. So did the Rockets.

The series now returns to Los Angeles for what could be a celebratory clinching or another ugly clenching.

Welcome back, Clips. Sort of.

Follow Bill Plaschke on Twitter @billplaschke

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