Doc Rivers sat down and sighed before taking the first question.
How do you explain the unexplainable?
His Clippers were on the verge of history Thursday night before things went berserk during an epic fourth-quarter collapse in Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals.
A series that had been tilting heavily the Clippers’ way swung wildly in the opposite direction at Staples Center after the Houston Rockets completed a startling comeback for a 119-107 victory.
Leading by as many as 19 points in the third quarter and 13 early in the fourth quarter, the Clippers were outscored 31-7 to end the game ... with cold-shooting Rockets star James Harden on the bench.
“I thought we were trying to run the clock out and we stopped playing,” Rivers said after the Rockets tied the series at three games apiece. “What could have gone wrong went wrong.”
The Clippers will have to wait until Game 7 on Sunday in Houston to collect a victory that would send them to the conference finals for the first time in franchise history.
Or perhaps much longer.
The Rockets will try to become the ninth team in NBA history and first since the Phoenix Suns in 2006 to win a series after trailing three games to one.
The Clippers’ second consecutive defeat left them to double gulp over this statistic: Road teams are 24-95 in Game 7s in league playoff history.
There was audible unease in the final minutes as the Rockets turned one kind of rout into another. The Clippers quickly shuffled off the court after point guard Chris Paul’s meaningless three-pointer with two seconds left. It was the Clippers’ first field goal since Paul’s layup with 6:47 left.
The never-made-it-past-the-second-round narrative involving Paul was still alive despite his 31 points, 11 assists and seven rebounds. It didn’t help that Clippers forward Blake Griffin went scoreless and missed all five of his shots in the fourth quarter after scoring 28 points in the first three quarters.
“There’s no point in pointing the finger on our team,” Griffin said. “They outplayed us in every sense of the word down the stretch.”
The numbers told the fourth-quarter carnage: The Clippers were outscored, 40-15, after making only four of 22 shots. Rockets swingman Corey Brewer single-handedly matched the Clippers’ scoring output with 15 points in the quarter and forward Josh Smith nearly did with 14 points of his own.
“We never stopped believing,” said Rockets center Dwight Howard, who tallied 20 points and 21 rebounds. “Our faith was tested all night and we kept it together.”
The momentum had been squarely in the Clippers’ corner after they outscored the Rockets, 28-17, during a third quarter that included Griffin tossing up a spinning, over-the-shoulder bank shot that somehow went in.
It was third time in as many home games in the series that the quarter had belonged to the Clippers, who held a 92-79 advantage heading into the fourth quarter.
They still led, 100-88, with 7:38 left after Austin Rivers completed a three-point play by making a driving layup and drawing a foul on the Rockets’ Jason Terry.
But Smith made two three-pointers and a driving layup as part of a 14-2 run that pulled the Rockets into a 102-102 tie on Brewer’s dunk with 4:21 left. The Rockets were just getting started, and a flurry of Clippers timeouts couldn’t help.
“Coming out of one of those timeouts, I told our guys to play more freely and with confidence,” Paul said. “Unfortunately, things didn’t work out our way.”
Harden scored 23 points but made only five of 20 shots for the Rockets, who persevered largely thanks to the contributions of Brewer and Smith, who each finished with 19 points.
It was the first game in the series in which both teams brought their best games — at least at the start — Griffin driving and juking his way to 11 first-quarter points and Paul high-fiving team owner Steve Ballmer after being fouled on a driving layup.
The Rockets rebounded to take a five-point lead late in the second quarter, when Houston Coach Kevin McHale then instructed his players to intentionally foul DeAndre Jordan. Bad move.
Jordan made both free throws and the Clippers immediately fouled Howard, who badly missed two free throws off to the left side of the rim.
After a Griffin dunk and two J.J. Redick baskets, the Clippers held a 64-62 halftime lead that would get much bigger before disappearing altogether.
The Clippers were left to hope their season wouldn’t endure a similar fate.
“We gave this one away, there’s no doubt about that,” Doc Rivers said. “But it’s still three-three and there’s a Game 7.”
Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter: @latbbolch