Trailing by 19 points in the second half with their season on the line, the Houston Rockets appeared dead in the water in Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals Thursday. And then a funny thing happened:
Josh Smith and Corey Brewer played like Hall of Famers.
That duo combined for 29 of their 38 points in the fourth quarter, leading the Rockets to a stunning 119-107 win in Los Angeles. Houston scored 40 points in the final 12 minutes, while the Clippers scored just 15 on 4-of-22 shooting (18.2 percent) – their worst playoff shooting percentage in any quarter in 20 seasons.
“That’s what makes it so difficult to sort of anticipate what’s going to happen in Game 7,” Bleacher Report NBA analyst Ric Bucher said on CBS Sports Radio’s The Doug Gottlieb Show. “(Everyone has) said, ‘The Clippers have blown it, the Rockets are going home, this series is over.’ But when you look at who that upset was built on and how it happened, I don’t know that it happens if not for the fact that the Clippers went up big, had control of the game and Kevin McHale just decided, ‘Okay, screw it. I’m just going to put my bench out there. There’s no plan. Just run up and down.’ That’s what they did. The Clippers assumed the game was over, and as a result, you had the Rockets rolling away with a victory.
“But if you look at what it was built on,” Bucher continued, “do you say that they’re going to replicate all that? Jason Terry is going to shut down Chris Paul? Dwight Howard is going to be composed and poised and your defensive backbone? Josh Smith is going to be lighting it up from inside and outside? I don’t know that you can count on those things. I would expect the Rockets are going to win, but I don’t expect it to be the same way they won Game 6.”
Game 7 is Saturday in Houston.
“Even though Chris Paul is the best leader and the biggest reason to say the Clippers will win, the last few games really have been dictated by the bench and the support players,” Bucher said. “This last game was the outlier as far as the bench players playing better on the road. It was an extraordinary circumstance, but going home, I would expect that you are going to see the Rockets do well.”
Especially James Harden, who spent most of the fourth quarter in Game 6 on the bench. He finished with 23 points but was just 5-of-20 from the field, as his 11-of-11 performance from the foul line was the only thing that saved him. Bucher believes Harden will play with something to prove Saturday.
Doug Gottlieb, however, isn’t so sure. He believes that Harden’s game is not ideal for postseason success. He’s not good without the ball, and he’s not great with the ball if he’s not drawing fouls. His style works in the regular season, but the playoffs are a different animal.
“I’ve said this,” Bucher said, “and it’s why it always irked me that people have killed the Oklahoma City Thunder for moving him when they did. He didn’t want to be a sixth man. And basically to keep him, they were going to have to lock him up and say, ‘We’re going ride or die with Russell, Kevin Durant and James Harden’ – and I would have been very fearful of that combination for many of the reasons that you state. I feel that they made the right move.”
So everyone calling the Thunder stupid, well, ease up a bit.
“The reality is, they knew there was a shelf life there,” Bucher said. “They knew there was a limitation. That’s what I think is really good about him not playing in the fourth quarter, which is, it’s not going to be all about James Harden. James Harden now has to fit in with what the rest of these guys did. I think their opportunity to get the best of James and maybe avoid the lesser parts, it would never be better than in a Game 7 when a team has proved it can win without him.”