In two of the last three postseasons the Los Angeles Clippers have merely knocked on the door to the Western Conference Finals. This year is far different, with L.A. practically beating the door down as they prepare for Game 6 of their conference semifinal against the Houston Rockets with a 3-2 series lead.
Should the Clippers prove victorious in Thursday night’s matchup at Staples Center, they will move on to the West finals for the first time in franchise history.
But the Rockets are far from laying down in the series. Houston thwarted L.A.’s first attempt at elimination with a pulverizing 124-103 Game-5 victory punctuated by shooting guard James Harden’s triple-double of 26 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists. The victory made up for the 128-95 Game 4 meltdown that saddled the Rockets with a 3-1 series deficit.
Houston has staged a comeback of this magnitude and rarity before. According to the Houston Chronicle, only eight teams have ever stormed back to win a seven-game series after being down 3-1, one of which was the 1995 Rockets who upended the Phoenix Suns in the second round in route to their second straight NBA title.
Maybe because of that history Clippers head coach Doc Rivers has stressed how important it is for his team to bounce the Rockets as soon as possible.
"One reason is the other team doesn't want to go home," Rivers said to the Los Angeles Times. "I think people forget that...I think that's part of it, and then the other part is the human nature. When you have a game in the bank, sometimes you don't play with urgency, and the fight, and the desperation that you should. You have to do that every playoff game, you just can't pick and choose."
Picky or not, there’s no denying L.A. has played extremely well in the series. They’ve blown out Houston three times, averaging a 24.6 point margin of victory, with power forward Blake Griffin emerging as one of the best players in this year’s playoffs.
Now in his sixth season, Griffin’s putting up 26.6 points, 13.4 rebounds, and 5.2 assists against Houston, with the passing numbers standing out the most in the wake of point guard Chris Paul’s shaky left hamstring.
After missing the first two games of the series due to the injury, Paul’s played the last three under strict minute restrictions but those will be removed in Game 6. Despite the loss, Paul looked like the player who dominated the San Antonio Spurs in the first round with 22 points and 10 assists over 35 minutes in Game 5.
In terms of injuries, the Rockets largely have a clean bill of health as they look to force a Game 7. Harden actually had to get over the flu while playing in Game 5, but he’s reportedly fought it off in the two days since the win.
Houston head coach Kevin McHale also has plans to keep small forward Josh Smith in the starting lineup, according to ESPN. The highflying Smith has wilted in the series compared to his dominate play in the first round against the Dallas Mavericks, averaging 6.8 points on 32.5 percent shooting compared to 17.4 points and a 39.1 percent rate from three-point range versus Dallas.
McHale was going with Terrence Jones at power forward, but started Smith in Game 5 because of his passing abilities. Smith responded to the vote of confidence with nine points, seven rebounds and four assists, going 4-for-7 from the floor in 22 minutes.
“We just changed some things up,” McHale said to ESPN. “Trying to get T.J. with that second unit maybe get him some more looks and get him going and Josh is a very good passer. And kinda how they play, we got to use another guy out there to break them down.”
Tipoff: 10:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Live Online Stream: Watch ESPN
Point Spread: Clippers -8.5
Over/Under: 221 points
Prediction: Clippers over Rockets, 110-100