More than a day after the final buzzer sounded on the Houston Rockets' stunning Game 6 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers, it still feels surreal that the Rockets host a Game 7 Sunday afternoon.
After Game 4 and a second straight blowout loss, we had already eulogized the Rockets' season, essentially. Some were wondering whether James Harden and Dwight Howard had the right emotional makeup to lead a championship team. Kevin McHale again looked lost on the sideline of the playoffs. Things were grim.
We're less than a week removed from feeling like that, and the series has turned around completely. The Rockets had their most convincing victory in the round in Game 5, a 20-point walkover in Houston with a triple-double from Harden and great contributions from literally everyone else. Game 6, well, I don't need to tell you anything more about Game 6.
Now, the Rockets are at home with a chance to go to their first conference finals in 18 years. They've won two straight games at home and lost just once there since the playoffs started -- the dreadful, listless Game 1. Rockets fans are in a frenzy and tickets are going for north of $4,000.
I've been (justifiably, I think) disappointed with the in-arena Rockets fans this series, but sometimes it's hard to blame them. The Clippers hack the Rockets far more in Houston than in L.A. hoping to keep their crowd in it as well. McHale has hacked just as much in Houston as he did in L.A., and the hack-a-thons sap energy from both the crowd and the Rockets. It's not fun to be in the arena for that long.
That should, hopefully, be different Sunday afternoon. There's nothing like a Game 7 at home in the NBA playoffs. The nervous energy and emotion in the building is ridiculous, you see hustle plays from veterans you haven't seen all season. The crowd is typically so electric that home teams are 96-24 in NBA Game 7 history.
With the crowd behind them, here are three things the Rockets must do to complete their 3-1 rally and advance:
Attack DeAndre Jordan
Jordan played more minutes in Game 6 than he had at any time all series (41). Game 6 was also the first time all series he finished with a negative +/- (-2). He had four blocks and SWALLOWS up Dwight Howard in the post -- seriously, why is Dwight going one-on-one against him anymore from farther than like 3 feet out? -- but the league's leading rebounder had just 9 in those 41 minutes, while Dwight came down with 21. It was a virtuoso performance from Superman in cleaning up the glass.
But the Rockets simply can't count on another down game from DeAndre Jordan. That means, once again, they need to try to force him into foul trouble early and get him off the floor. Not only that, but when the Rockets attack Jordan and dish to teammates, it usually works. In fact, Houston is shooting 58 percent of its shots near the rim. Check out their shot chart this series, via Austin Clemens:
That's a lot of red near the rim. Their biggest weakness has been the mid-range game. Total surprise, I know. The Rockets have only shot 17 percent of their attempts from their, but they have hit them at a 27 percent rate. That's atrocious. Many of those shots have been Harden step-back jumpers, which were automatic in the regular season and absent this series.
Solution: go at the rim relentlessly. If Jordan is there and in good position, make a quick, decisive pass or try to draw the foul. Worst-case scenario, Jordan blocks or alters the shot, but he's left Dwight Howard to do so, and Superman can get the offensive rebound. This is a winning strategy.
Actually try in the third quarter
It seems complicated, I know, but the Rockets third quarters have been roundly abysmal this series. In their three losses, that's where the Clippers have pulled away. In their three wins, that's where the Clippers have pulled away. Or brought it close. For whatever reason, after the break the Rockets are lethargic and the Clip-clops are fired up.
The scores at halftime in this series have generally been close. If the Rockets can manage to not crap the bed for the next 12 minutes of game time, they'll be in a position to have any sort of momentum in the fourth quarter. That worked out in their last contest, if you remember.
Find the X-Factor
Dwight Howard has been consistently excellent in this series, and James Harden does not deserve the reputation he's been given as underperforming. Has he taken it to another level in the playoffs? No. The Beard is simply playing the way he was all season.
Those two have played generally well even in the losses. The big difference-maker has been any contribution the Rockets can find elsewhere. In Game 5, it was Trevor Ariza pouring in 22 and playing his butt off. In Game 6, it was the Headband of Brothers taking over when the Clippers bench collapsed, and keeping it going even against the starters.
Who will it be in Game 7. Will Terrence Jones finally have four good quarters at the same time. Can Smoove keep his head on his shoulders? Can Jason Terry continue to hound Chris Paul? It might be time for a Pablo Prigioni three-point barrage. Who knows.
The Rockets have two superstars, and they will do their part tonight. If the rest of the team can match their level, if they don't stumble in the third quarter and if they attack Jordan in the paint all night long, this team will have an excellent chance for another series win.