Rockets 113, Clippers 100 (Houston wins series, 4-3)

It’s going to take some time to digest what just happened to the Los Angeles Clippers. We can start with the developments begged by immediacy. Chris Paul won’t reach the conference finals for the 10th time in 10 seasons. Blake Griffin will once again be forced to wait a notch below the definitive top tier of superstardom. Austin Rivers might now be legally owned by James Harden.

Then come the uncomfortable personnel questions that have sprung up sooner than expected. Was that DeAndre Jordan’s last game as a Clipper? Is there a market to rebuild one of the League’s most barren benches? Does this core need to invest in another plus defender to truly break out of the saturated West?

And in time, we’ll have historical perspective. Because Chris Paul’s championship window may stay open for another seven years, and DeAndre Jordan may stay in Los Angeles and learn how to shoot free throws, and Doc Rivers may add the requisite role players when the cap jumps next summer. The franchise may recover from blowing a 3-1 series lead and a 19-point third-quarter lead in Game 6, and it may not.

But guessing how the latest sad chapter reads in the Clippers’ library of errors is not what this Game 7 is about. This is about a team that spent much of the year plagued by volatility, was ravaged by injuries down the stretch and touted some of the League’s most intensely unlikable players. And how that team is somehow just one round from the Finals. For every disastrous collapse lives an inspired comeback, and while the Clippers certainly threw this series away, the Rockets also snatched it back.

Every aspect of the Houston Rockets was in tune and on point Sunday. There was a palpable urgency to their game, while the Clippers reacted possession after possession like they were still confounded by their freefall. The Rockets’ defense was smothering: James Harden confidently guarded Paul (and at times even Griffin) on the perimeter, and the NBA’s third-ranked 3-point shooting team was dragged down to a 25 percent clip from behind the arc. The offense, meanwhile, ran the pick and roll with aplomb, freed up shooters around the perimeter and, once Harden was able to get into the paint, forced Jordan to leave his feet too often.

Harden had 12 points in the first quarter and 31 for the game, and his 7-for-20 shooting was masked by 15 made free throws. Trevor Ariza made six threes. Dwight Howard pulled down 15 rebounds. Newly elected Mayor of Houston Josh Smith shot 6-for-10, and Pablo Prigioni put up a game-best plus-minus of +20. Jason Terry was perhaps the only Rocket to struggle offensively, but he visibly flustered CP3 throughout the afternoon. This game wasn’t as close as the score suggests. The Rockets lead by 17 after three quarters and dominated most of the fourth before the Clippers tore off a short-lived 13-3 run.

It’s easy to count the Rockets out as they prepare for one of the best regular season teams we’ve seen in a long time, and it was natural to be rooting for the entertainment value of a Clippers-Warriors conference finals. But teams don’t make 19-point Game 6 comebacks on the road to go out with a whimper afterward. The Rockets are looking comfortable and confident, and while they can’t afford any stretches of inconsistency against Steph Curry and copmany, a few performances like Sunday’s shouldn’t be out of the question either.