In recent seasons, few things in the NBA have produced unexpected moments quite like games between the Clippers and the Houston Rockets.
In 2015, there was Houston’s shocking 19-point comeback to win Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals. Three years later, Rockets players attempted to storm the Clippers’ locker room after a contentious game at Staples Center.
In the teams’ first meeting this season, ex-Clipper and current Rockets guard Austin Rivers lobbied officials to call the technical foul on his father, Clippers coach Doc Rivers, that led to the elder Rivers’ ejection. In the second, the brother of Rockets guard Russell Westbrook was escorted out of Staples Center after jawing with Clippers center Montrezl Harrell.
“There is something” to the rivalry, Doc Rivers said. “There’s no doubt about it.”
Houston’s 122-117 victory Thursday at Staples Center continued a matchup that remains anything but ordinary.
What began with an offensive outage unlike any other this season for Houston’s James Harden continued with dust-ups between Patrick Beverley and Ben McLemore, and Beverley and Westbrook, a third-quarter ejection for normally mild-mannered Lou Williams, a fourth-quarter ejection for Beverley and a wild scoreboard swing in the final minutes.
Perhaps the most unexpected development to come from the loss was that a Clippers team that has been so steady at closing out comebacks this season lost its composure late. Because of it, the Clippers’ 10-game home winning streak is gone too.
“We had a big lead and came out and kind of gave it up,” Rivers said. “I thought it was like when you get jumped. I thought that’s what happened. We didn’t react to it very well.”
Paul George scored a team-high 34 points to lead the Clippers. Kawhi Leonard scored 25, with nine rebounds, making two of nine shots after halftime.
By going away from the two-man traps that had defined their approach to guarding Harden during the two previous meetings this season, the Clippers held the NBA’s leading scorer to two points in the second quarter and five before halftime, his fewest in a first half this season.
“I liked how we were guarding him when we were guarding him one-on-one,” Rivers said. “I thought when we did that, we were effective.”
The Clippers had a 15-point halftime lead and the Rockets (19-9) were out-of-sync enough that Westbrook requested arena staffers to check whether the rim on one end of the court was, in fact, level.
But all that progress was undone by a horrific third quarter in which the Clippers were outscored by 18. A team that pushed the ball upcourt with speed in the first half, off makes and misses, began possessions at a walk. The pace was the first sign to Rivers that something was amiss.
“The beginning of the third, that first six minutes, changed the entire game,” he said. “I thought we had a chance to knock them out and we didn’t.”
Houston’s comeback began a game of runs in the final 12 minutes.
With 9:31 to play and Westbrook in control on his way to a 40-point performance, the Clippers trailed 101-89.
With 5:03 to play, after a pair of three-pointers apiece by Landry Shamet and George and another by Beverley, the Clippers led 111-105 despite missing Williams, who’d been ejected six minutes earlier after hotly arguing a foul call.
But with 1:53 to play, the Clippers were down again, 122-113. Westbrook’s offense, and the defense of forward P.J. Tucker, changed the outcome, Rivers said, but Harden secured it for Houston.
In two previous meetings with the Clippers (21-9) this season Harden had averaged 42 points and made 50% of his field goals, including three-pointers. The Clippers couldn’t keep him down forever.
He scored 12 of his 28 points in the final 6:32 and added an assist on an alley-oop in the stretch.