True Grit

Houston Rockets guard Pablo Prigioni steals the ball from Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin in Game 7 of the NBA basketball Western Conference semifinals on May 17, 2015.

AP Photo/David J. Phillip

The image of the gunslinger is one of classic American lore. A grizzled veteran of saloon shootouts and vigilante justice, he walks with a distinct swagger and carries himself with pride, knowing he is merely a poker game gone awry from coming face to face with his demise.

It seems that gunslingers will always dictate the history of the West. The barroom brawl that just concluded in Houston has left one team dazed and the other unfazed.

I’m not going to lie to you: like a lot of the East Coast, I went to sleep prior to the wild conclusion of Game 6 of the Western Conference series between the Los Angeles Clippers and the Houston Rockets last Thursday night. It was late, I had work the next morning, and the lead was significant enough that I felt comfortable leaving it in the hands of Chris Paul, defender of the universe, and company.

You probably know how that went.  The Clippers blew an 87-68 third quarter lead against a wild Rockets lineup that featured sizable contributions from Corey Brewer and noted Pistons castoff Josh Smith, while notably not including MVP runner-up James Harden. Kevin McHale wasn’t here to party, nor was he here to disco.

Houston Rockets v Los Angeles Clippers

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images North America

The Rockets closed out that game on a 51-20 run, forcing a Game 7 back in Houston on a stunned Clippers team. In doing so, Houston disproved everything we thought we knew about playoff basketball, and Daryl Morey laughed his way to the nearest aggregate spreadsheet.

Los Angeles had incredibly stolen the first game in Houston without Paul, and it was supposed to be smooth sailing for the Clipper ship after going up 3-1. Blake Griffin, who up to that point in the playoffs looked like Super-sized Russell Westbrook, disappeared to the farthest reaches of the universe. Paul probably felt some residual pain from the sore hamstring he sustained in the heroic throes of Game 7 against the Spurs. DeAndre Jordan encountered foul trouble on both ends of the floor, as only DeAndre Jordan can.

The Clippers never led Game 7, trudging around with the kind of despondency you see in soldiers who don’t remember what they’re fighting for. Paul notched a double-double and led the game in assists, though both he and the entirety of the Los Angeles bench (read: Jamal Crawford) encountered foul trouble. Austin Rivers remembered he was Austin Rivers.

Dwight Howard played like an NBA player of his size and not like a giant, slobbering puppy. Harden did what Harden does, which is to say that he scored efficiently by getting to the free throw line, even as he went 2-7 from the field. James Harden is a case study in “don’t hate the player, hate the game.”

Having Paul, Crawford and JJ Redick all go cold from the three-point line at the exact moment when Trevor Ariza became Ray Allen didn’t help Doc Rivers’ cause, nor did Matt Barnes vomiting a zero-point effort on the score sheet. Weirdly, only Barnes and Jordan finished with net-positive ratings for the Clips in Game 7, which perhaps speaks as much to the specific stretches of time they were on the floor as it does to their respective effects on the run of play.

When a team blows a 3-1 lead in the NBA playoffs, someone is bound to be held accountable in the court of public opinion. The Clippers are better than they’ve ever been, but it still isn’t good enough for a team comprising Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. Soon, Jordan may not be there to blame, but if Los Angeles brings him back, they won’t have any ability to improve the anemic bench and provide help to the others.

Is this a landmark victory for advanced analytics in the grand battle against brute basketball force? Some will surely attempt to paint it that way, and there is certainly something to consider there. The real victory, however, had depth prevailing over star talent. In the Old West, the frontlines didn’t win anything. When the going got tough, they called in the cavalry.

For the entire season, the Clippers have had to address questions regarding their depth, and for the most part, Doc Rivers has had answers. Now, as they watch James Harden and the Rockets ride into the Golden State sunset, they have plenty of time to devise their next charge. Who will be in that brigade remains to be seen.

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