On comebacks and chokes

Josh Smith
Josh Smith

Nine times out of 10, you see a blowout happening, you click off the TV and you’re fine. Maybe more than nine times out of 10.

Last night, the Los Angeles Clippers were up by 19 points late in the third quarter of a closeout game in L.A. I was happy about the prospect of getting to bed early. Looking forward to a little sleepy time. Still, I told myself, “If the Rockets get it to 10 by the end of the quarter, I’ll stick around.” They cut it to 13.

I stuck around anyway.

Oh. My. God.

Or, from this ESPN.com L.A.-based columnist:

There are lots of ways to look at Houston’s incredible 119-107 comeback in Game 6, a must-have that they trailed in by 19 points — Did I say that? They were up by 19 points, for sheet’s sake (I just made that up) — with 2:35 left in the third quarter. But two things, when you boil all of it down, are evident.

1.) The Rockets, with their MVP sitting on the bench for virtually all of the fourth quarter, somehow dredged up the pride to play this thing out. And I think, in its essence, that’s exactly what happened. Guys like the unwanted Josh Smith (three huuuuuuge 3s in the fourth quarter, 19 points overall, 14 in the fourth),  37-year-old Jason Terry and the forgotten Corey Brewer (19 points, 16 of them in the fourth) just decided that they didn’t want to go out like that. (Or, it must be said, like the Chicago Bulls went out in the earlier game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, a dreadful Chicago finale in which the Bulls simply rolled over.)

Smith, Terry, Brewer, Dwight Howard (20 points and 21 rebounds) — and there were others — manned up and simply played harder and better than the big-shot Clippers (who were proclaimed title favorites just days ago). The Rockets rebounded better — 21-5 in the fourth quarter alone — and, overall in the game, grabbed 15 offensive boards to L.A.’s four. That accounted for the second-chance points disparity: Houston scored 21 more points than the Clippers’ did on second chances, 26-5.

It’s corny and all, but the Rockets — maybe, foremost, because of a fear of humiliation, which works wonders — just wanted it more. And the Clippers, just watching the way they were running their offense and not rebounding, clearly wanted nothing to do with this team in red with the crazy look in its eyes. Which brings up my second point …

2.) The Clippers tightened up like a garotte on Luca Brasi. They couldn’t shoot. They didn’t defend. Worse, they seemed like they didn’t want to shoot and couldn’t defend. (Sorry to go all italic on you.)

When you give up 40 points, you’ve stopped playing, clearly. And when you don’t score but 15, with the way we score, those aren’t good, either.
— Doc Rivers

That was the fourth-quarter score. A gulping 40-15. And that was after Paul made a meaningless 3-point fling at the basket as time ran out.

Really. I mean … really. A chance to close out a series, on your home floor, to reach the franchise’s first Western Conference final ever, and you score (in essence) 12 points in the fourth quarter and give up 40.

If that’s not a choke, there are no chokes in sports.

As soon as the game ended, and I drug myself to bed, I started to wonder about a couple things. [And then, when  I drug myself out of bed this morning, I looked them up.]

Where was Blake Griffin when all this was going down? [Nowhere. Nowhere. This is nothing short of scandalous. Griffin scored 28 points. The last one was this ridiculous behind-the-head layup. with 4:12 left. In the third period! In the third period! That means — calculator out, now — he didn’t score at all in the fourth, when his team needed him the most. He was 0-for-4. He fouled out.]

Where was Chris Paul? [Somewhere. But not where he needed to be. Not when he needed to be. If his team scores only 15 points in the last quarter, the last three a gift 3 — and this is his team — he has to take some heat. He had better take some heat. He scored nine points after the Clips’ last 19-point lead. Wasn’t nearly enough.]

Where was everybody else? Anybody else? [Obviously nowhere. No D’Andre Jordan. J.J. Redick scored only one 3-pointer during Houston’s comeback. No Mouthy Matt Barnes. One layin from Doc’s boy Austin. ]

It was an amazing, improbable, stunning turn, just the type of thing that fools like me stay up way past midnight hoping for. And nobody saw it coming. Nobody. Least of all the ESPN crew of Mike Tirico and Jon Barry, who took way too long to realize that an epic comeback was upon us, and didn’t even realize until way too late that James Harden, the Rockets’ MVP, was on the bench while it was happening.

I’m telling you, if the Clippers choked — yeah, they did — this broadcast team did, too. As the Rockets made their first steps in the comeback, Tirico and Barry were preoccupied naming old Buffalo Braves. I’m sitting there screaming, “They were down by 19!” and “Where is Harden?” while these guys were droning on about … I don’t even remember. I know it wasn’t the damn game.

As the Clippers turned blue and looked for the Heimlich, the ESPN guys still didn’t realize what they had on their hands. I don’t think they thought a comeback was possible until they heard the crowd. Or didn’t hear it.

And so it is that the Clippers, title faves just days ago (I can’t let that go, can I?), now seemingly are reverting to their innate Clipperness. That is not good for all those who have broken their ankles jumping on the L.A. bandwagon in the last couple years.

They have a Game 7 to play Sunday back in Houston, and the Clippers might well pull that out. They’ve won in Houston already in this series. No one would be surprised if they won again. They’ll certainly be desperate enough.

But if the Clippers don’t win, if they fail to reach the franchise’s first Western Conference final by choking Game 6 and dropping the series in Houston, there will be hell to pay in L.A. Paul, who has never been to the conference final, will not look good. Doc will not look good. There’ll be changes, because (in the West, especially) there will have to be.

It’s a delicious setup to Sunday. I’m not sure who I will be rooting for. But I know I’d better watch the whole thing.

Here’s a look at Thursday’s fourth-quarter comeback.

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