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NBA Playoffs: Houston Rockets vs. L.A. Clippers – Will It Be Seventh Heaven For Clutch City?

By Tamberlyn Richardson
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NBA Playoffs: Houston Rockets vs. L.A. Clippers

Game SEVEN

Sun May 17, 3:30 PM EST – ABC, C+D

Toyota Center – Houston, TX

Latest Results:

[table id=137 /]

Next: What's the Story?

May 14, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin (32) has his shot blocked by Houston Rockets forward Josh Smith (5) in game six of the second round of the NBA Playoffs at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

Story Lines

Historical Implications:

Both teams enter Sunday with the opportunity to add their names to the history books. Houston can become only the 9th team in history to come back from a 3-1 series deficit while the Clippers will try to become just the 25th of 121 teams to win a Game 7 on the road.  For more details check out our earlier article.

Winning Grants a Berth Into Western Conference Finals:

Clearly there is nothing more exciting than a Game 7 when both teams lay it on the line. Last season we experienced several great Game 7’s, but Sunday’s match marks only the second of this years playoffs. Should the Clippers prevail it would be their first trip to the WCF in franchise history. Houston has been to the W.C.F. six times, however this would mark their first visit since 1997 when they lost to Utah. If you’re a fan of numbers perhaps the symmetry of winning a Game 7 for their 7th trip to the Western Conference Finals may resonate with you.

Rocket Momentum or Clipper Collapse?

This series has provided more ups and downs than a roller coaster with each team experiencing highs and lows. For the Clippers they came into Houston on a high having dispersed of the reigning Champion Spurs.  That confidence was evident as L.A. took the early 3-1 series lead dominating the Rockets and blowing them out in back to back wins in L.A.

On the other hand Houston entered the series displaying rust from 5 days off, had curiously lost their ability to defend and couldn’t sustain an offensive flow.

Even their Game 2 win left many wondering what was wrong with the Rockets who seemingly had lost their identity.

It’s likely no coincidence the Rockets who played their best ball this season when in adverse conditions or underestimated finally rediscovered their identity upon the brink of elimination.

Early in the series the Rockets were the team who would disappear for entire quarters putting themselves in a hole too deep to dig out of, but it’s now the Clippers who have taken over that role.

Worse for Doc River’s boys is they carry the added weight of their Game 6 collapse coupled with the knowledge they are 0-4 in Western Conference Semi Final clinching games.  Given that, the Clippers must muster amnesia of their past 2 games while simultaneously carrying the burden of the Western Conference Finals berth that has alluded their franchise.

Are the Clipper Egos Healed?

For the first time since April 22nd, the Clippers have had two days off, and while many banged up players needed that rest it also offered additional time for the Game 6 collapse to resonate. So, the question many are wondering isn’t how the rest affected the recovery of Matt Barnes, Chris Paul and Austin Rivers, rather how the team is processing the embarrassment of the Game 6 loss in front of their home fans.

Have Houston Rediscovered Their Identity?

Obviously the insertion of Josh Smith into the starting line-up paid immediate dividends and the re-emergence of Corey Brewer late in Game 6 was instrumental in the Rockets comeback effort. Regardless of the Clippers refusal to accredit Houston’s offensive production or defensive improvements Houston’s role players have emerged as the x-factor in their wins. Confidence and momentum are like a disease and with that historic comeback spearheaded by the efforts of Smith, Brewer, Jason Terry, Trevor Ariza and Dwight Howard it’s hard not to imagine the entire squad will reap the rewards.

To that end it appears the Rockets have rediscovered their identity and team chemistry has reached a new high with their dramatic Game 6 victory. It’s fitting that the much maligned Josh Smith, now comfortable in Houston was pivotal to the comeback and it’s his post game words which best conveyed the victory and newly confident Rockets’ mindset “There are wins and then there are wins that can define a team or a player or even a season.”-Smith

 

Next: The Numbers Don't Lie

May 12, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets forward Terrence Jones (6) and forward Trevor Ariza (1) box out Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin (32) in the second half in game five of the second round of the NBA Playoffs at Toyota Center. Rockets won 124 to 103. Mandatory Credit: Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Season Stats:

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Playoff Stats:

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Notably the Rockets started off the series with their defense plummeting and following game Game 4, other than rebounds and points they were well behind the Clippers stats. Since that point in the series a dramatic change has occurred for both squads.

Other than assists L.A.’s stats have dropped in each stat category,  the worst of which is they’ve dropped 4 places in rebounding. Conversely the Rockets have improved or sustained every stat category and are ranked first in scoring, rebounds and pace.

Next: Limping Forward?

May 14, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Clippers forward Matt Barnes (22) before playing against the Houston Rockets in game six of the second round of the NBA Playoffs. at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Walking Wounded:

As noted the Clippers have several players nursing bumps and bruises, but perhaps their ego’s may require the most therapy following the Game 6 collapse. On the other hand, the Rockets mounted that fourth quarter comeback without their star James Harden (still suffering from the flu) on the court.

Los Angeles:

Jordan Hamilton: Hasn’t played in the post season after suffering a concussion

Houston:

  • K.J. McDaniels injured his wrist in what was reported as a likely fracture in the final game of the season
  • Donatas Motiejunas Out for season (back).
  • Patrick Beverley  Out for season following surgery to repair torn ligaments in his wrist. Beverley has said he’ll be back, but wanting something to be true and forcing it to be true are two different things.

Next: What do you have in reserve?

May 14, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Houston Rockets forward Josh Smith (5) reacts with guard Corey Brewer (33) after he blocks a shot against Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin (32) during the second half in game six of the second round of the NBA Playoffs. at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Bench Mob:

[table id=140 /]

Full bench stats at hoopsstats.com

Entering the series the Rockets held a huge advantage in terms of their bench which was absent for the first four games in the series. Over the past two games the squad is witnessing a resurgence notably led by Corey Brewer.

Key Match-up:

Few teams get to experience a comeback especially in an elimination game, so the Rockets will enter Sunday with all the confidence in the world on their side. Their performance Thursday specifically in the fourth quarter is only part of the reason for that optimism. A greater factor is their best player (Harden) remained on the bench for the entirety of the fourth quarter. Ailing with the effects of the flu he cheered from the sidelines, but you can be sure he is primed to want to bring a Harden-esque game to this series.

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Though James Harden wasn’t on the court for the comeback he has his own positives to draw from heading into Sunday.

Specifically, nationally televised Sunday games showcased some of his best efforts this season. Notably “the kick” game versus LeBron James’ Cavaliers, facing Russell Westbrook in OKC,  John Wall’s Wizards and Blake Griffin’s return from injury in L.A. Each of these Sunday games ended in a win for the Rockets with Harden featuring prominently.

Though James Harden has posted great numbers for the series he hasn’t posted that one stand out game or effected a game in the manner we are accustomed to. Credit the defensive effort of the Clippers J.J. Redick and Matt Barnes as well as the flu bug that beset him the past two games. Not to put undue pressure on Harden, but with everything on the line and all eyes on the game Sunday it feels like this could be the game he breaks out.

His counterpart will be Chris Paul who no doubt will have benefited from the extra day off and will want to end the Clippers 0-4 record in semi final game clinching situations.

Personally I feel the stars will all make a mark Sunday and once again it will be the role players who are the x-factors.  Redick, Barnes and Rivers ruled the start of the series, but the headband brothers (Smith, Brewer and Terry) have played a greater factor over the past two games.

And, don’t discount the effect Clutch City will have on the outcome. Teams fight all year for positioning to earn home court advantage specifically for this purpose. If you are lucky enough to be one of those attending the Toyota Center today make sure to play the role of the sixth man.

Next: Difference Makers

May 4, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin (32) takes a rest during Houston Rockets fouls shot in the second half in game one of the second round of the NBA Playoffs at Toyota Center. Los Angeles Clippers won 117 to 101. Mandatory Credit: Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Season Leaders:

Clippers:

Rockets:

Individual Playoff Stat Leaders:

Points: James Harden – 26.3 points per game, fourth overall

Rebounds:– Dwight Howard  jumped to first following his huge 21 rebound Game 6 effort averaging with 13.7 rebounds per game, this dropped DeAndre Jordan to second with 13.1 and Blake Griffin dropped to third with 12.8 rebounds per game.

Assists:  Chris Paul jumped to first with 8.6 assists per game while shooting guard  James Harden dropped to second  with less minutes played registering an average of 8.0 assists per game .

Field Goal Percent:  DeAndre Jordan – remains first though his average dropped almost 3 percent 71.8%,  Dwight Howard fell to 8th with a 57.7% field goal percent.

Blocks: Dwight Howard –  second with 2.7  block average is best of the active playoff players per game and DeAndre Jordan ranks fourth with 2.3

Next: What's the Key?

May 4, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin (32) drives against Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) in the second half in game one of the second round of the NBA Playoffs at Toyota Center. Los Angeles Clippers won 117 to 101. Mandatory Credit: Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Keys To Winning:

  •  Get Off To a Good Start/Build on Game 6 Momentum: With the Game 6 loss still fresh in their minds, the Clippers will want to make an early statement. If the Rockets can channel the energy of the home crowd to build an early lead it might serve to build the paranoia of an L.A. team who’ve been trying to purge that memory for the past two days.
  • Pace:  Playing with speed and pace is nothing new for the Rockets, but the Clippers sit third of all playoff teams which is an unusual situation for them. Houston need to continue to play with pace utilizing the same strategy as they did in the fourth quarter Thursday.
  • Be Aggressive: The past two games we’ve witnessed the Rockets being more aggressive and with a healthier determined James Harden they should look to win the paint battle which will also serve to get Clipper players in foul trouble as early as possible.
  • The last two games have showcased periods of lock down defense from the Rockets. To capture the series they’ll need to bring that effort for the entire 48 minutes.
  • Don’t let Griffin or Paul Be the Difference: The Rockets haven’t found a way to stop Blake Griffin, however they have been able to hold him down in fourth quarters. His five consecutive missed shots in the final frame was a crucial part of the melt down Thursday. If you watched the great Game 7 versus the Spurs you know CP3 will be keen to take this game over. Without the services of Pat Beverley, containing Paul has been an issue specifically as a facilitator.  While Terry has had copious issues defending Paul, the Rockets have been more successful with Brewer on him. With everything on the line we might see Brewer get more minutes today with that goal in mind.
  • Others and Reserves: The series has been characterized via the role players production. Wins can almost be isolated by these players performances. Through the first 4 games it was the Clippers who took that advantage, but the past two games has seen the Rockets regain the edge.
  • Don’t Beat Yourself: At times in the series Howard hasn’t played with intelligence taking silly fouls. He can’t afford to do that in this final game nor can the team. The key will be to find a balance of playing freely while keeping focused and playing smart.

Next: And the magic eight ball predicts...

Apr 28, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) talks with teammates during the second quarter against the Dallas Mavericks in game five of the first round of the NBA Playoffs at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Picks:

Game Seven

Interestingly the odds makers aren’t giving Houston any credit for the past two victories or the fact they are on their home court making the Clippers the favorite by 2.5 points. Sure it’s a substantial downgrade from the 8.5 points they received Thursday, however it once again points to how under rated the Rockets are.

The Editors Pick

Last game out I chose not to make a prediction citing my superstition for jinxing a squad in a close-out game. Since that turned out positively I’ll stick to that theory. Having said that, those of you who are loyal followers know I predicted the Rockets would win their first round series in 5 games and that they would win this series in 7 games. Perhaps that’s a positive omen.

Factor in I’ve highlighted the momentum is all on Houston’s side, Harden is primed for a typical Sunday performance and a quick start could really play with the heads of the Clippers who are trying to overcome a long history of failed Championship runs.

Looking back at the regular and post season this team is so used to being under estimated it almost feels appropriate they enter today in that role. While we’ll definitely hope for a positive outcome it should be noted this season can’t be considered anything other than a success given the adversity they’ve face with copious injuries and the heart they’ve demonstrated.

Expect Clutch City to be very loud at the Toyota Center today with one cheerleader featuring prominently on the Rockets bench. To wit, immediately following Thursday’s incredible comeback a thought popped into my head: if Houston win Game 7, they would start on Tuesday May 19th which is a day or two from the timeline for Patrick Beverley‘s cast to be removed. With the trouble the Rockets have incurred defensively, specifically against the likes of Monta Ellis and Chris Paul and Steph Curry awaiting today’s victor a possible Beverley return makes me giddy with anticipation.

As we close in on the 3:30 tip-off, remember Game 7’s are a rarity as they take on an entire personality of their own. Let’s send our positive energy to the Rockets’ squad who stand on the precipice of making their seventh Western Conference Finals in franchise history.

Check back with us post game for player grades and tomorrow morning for the post game analysis.

Let’s get em…. Go Rockets Go!

Next: Dissecting the Dichotomy of MVP

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