Clippers-Rockets Game 7: This Is About More Than Survival


May 6, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin (32) reacts after a play during the first quarter against the Houston Rockets in game two of the second round of the NBA Playoffs at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

As the Los Angeles Clippers attempt to regather and take on the Houston Rockets in game seven, it’s not just surviving another game that’s at stake. It seems rather obvious, but if the Clippers advance, they have far more to gain than any other team in the second round who hopes to make the Conference Finals.

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They have a chance to prove their resolve once and for all, make franchise history, and show that they aren’t just a threatening regular season team any more. And more importantly, they need to finally prove that they can close out a series and escape the “doomed to fail” reputation that will only intensify if they’re eliminated by the Rockets.

Since Blake Griffin won Rookie of the Year in the 2010-11 season, the Clippers have turned themselves around. As since they became the Clippers in 1984, L.A. have reached 45 wins in only two seasons (1991-92 and 2005-6). Now, with Griffin and Chris Paul, they’ve already exceeded that total by winning 56+ games in each of the last three seasons.

And with that, Lob City was born.

DeAndre Jordan’s playing time has risen since he joined the Clippers in 2008, and with his emergence as a high flying shot blocker, rebounder and dunker, L.A. rapidly became one of the most entertaining teams in the NBA.

However, despite their renaissance over the last few years (they’ve been at least the fourth seed in the Western Conference over the last three seasons), their regular season prowess hasn’t exactly carried over into the playoffs.

After making it to the postseason in each of the last four seasons, the Clippers have put up a fight, but have never made it past the second round. And in the three years that they did make it to the semi finals, they had to endure a seven game first round series every single time. When they made it to the second round in 2011-12, they were dismissed by the San Antonio Spurs in a 4-0 sweep. And when they returned to the semi finals again in 2013-14, they fell to the Oklahoma City Thunder 4-2.

May 14, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin (32) watches from the bench against the Houston Rockets in game six of the second round of the NBA Playoffs at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

The Clippers haven’t failed to close out at every hurdle, though.

In the first round in 2013-14, they lost a possible series ending game six to the Golden State Warriors, before they rallied in game seven to win and advance to the next round.

This year, they were down 3-2 against the Spurs before they won back-to-back games to defeat the defending champions in a spectacular seven game series.

So even though they may have never made it past the second round, and most of their history is against them, they’ve at least shown on a couple of occasions that they can overcome an underdog reputation to win. And more than anything, they proved that this year against the Spurs.

It looked like the Clippers had changed for the better, and they had superstars who could close the deal in the fourth quarter (aka CP3’s buzzer beater with a second left to win game seven). Yet, as they now find themselves tied at 3-3 with the Houston Rockets, their true potential and ability is once again being questioned.

After surrendering 42 made free throws in game two as the Rockets tied the series 1-1, the Clippers came back to win two straight games — both by a margin of at least 25 points. And with Austin Rivers going off for a career playoff high 25 points in game three, and Paul and Griffin combining for 70 points in those two games alone, the Clippers looked set to make the Conference finals for the first time in franchise history.

With their bench performing (Jamal Crawford and Rivers have averaged 26 combined points per game this series) and Griffin and Paul displaying their dominance at virtually every opportunity, the Clippers seemed as though they were on cruise control.

That was when they crumbled.

Whether it was the weight of the situation, or that Corey Brewer and Josh Smith are simply that amazing (they combined to score 29 fourth quarter points), they’ve now lost a 3-1 series lead, after failing to capitalize off a 19 point third quarter lead in game six. And as Brewer and Smith came at L.A. with the best nothing-to-lose attitude possible, the Clippers start this series afresh in game seven.

And not just for the sake of surviving, either. But to actually put their doubters to rest and prove what they can achieve with the right level of mental toughness.

The Clippers have let the doubt in people’s minds resurface after failing to close this series out when they had the chance. But it is justified, though. Their intensity, composure and defense was completely absent in the fourth quarter of game six. And as if them surrendering 40 points to the Rockets wasn’t enough, they also shot a mere 18.1 percent from the field and scored just 15 points.

May 14, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Clippers guard Chris Paul (3) shoots over Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard (12) in game six of the second round of the NBA Playoffs at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

Now, they have the opportunity to make a serious statement — albeit not the most confident one.

They’ve already made it further than they should have this postseason. They were clear underdogs in the eyes of almost everyone against the Spurs, yet they found a way to step up behind the triple doubles of Griffin and the grittiness of Paul, as he fought through a hamstring injury in game seven. If the final two games of that series — against the defending champions, no less — didn’t prove how this team has matured from the showmanship of “Lob City”, then not much can.

As they await game seven, their chances of making the Western Conference finals rests on their mentality more than anything else. The likelihood of the Clippers shooting less than 20 percent in a final quarter again are slim, but this stage of the playoffs requires them to employ a new level of mental toughness that we haven’t always seen from them.

In the exact same way they beat the Spurs, they need an immense sense of urgency and aggression. If they treat this like any other game, rather than a potential history making game seven, there is no reason they can’t close this out and silence their critics once more.

Next: Clippers Gift Rockets With Game 6: L.A. Can't Close (Again)