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Rockets and Clippers renew their crazy rivalry

HOUSTON -- The consternation between the Houston Rockets and the Los Angeles Clippers runs deep.

A total of six points separates the teams in their three matchups this season, with the final meeting set to take place Wednesday night at Toyota Center.

And every one of those six points meant something.

"It's the matchups and a lot of similarities between our teams, style of play, guards, bigs. I think we're very similar and both of us can score the ball," Rockets interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff said. "When you have the ability to score the ball you're never out of a game. That's just the way this series has gone the last few years. A lot of ups and downs, there have never really been decided early, one way or the other. A lot of balance and similarities in our makeup."

With the Rockets, currently holding the seventh seed in the Western Conference, looking up at the fourth-seeded Clippers, there's a growing feeling if the teams meet in the postseason, it's a series the team from Texas believes it can win.

The Rockets must overcome a five-game deficit to fifth-seeded Memphis if they are to meet their rival from the West Coast.

Such a matchup probably would bring drama -- close, contested and long games with fourth-quarter comebacks and big games from the star players.

In the last two seasons, counting playoffs, the Rockets have won eight of 14 meetings with the Clippers. One of the biggest wins was in Game 6 of last season's conference semifinals, where the Rockets rallied from a 19-point deficit to score 40 fourth-quarter points in a 119-107 victory to avoid being eliminated.

The loss was devastating for the Clippers, and the emotions felt were summed up by Glen Davis before Game 7. As Davis, wearing a ripped t-shirt that looked as it were found underneath a car, saw a gaggle of reporters sitting in the lobby waiting for practice to start said crudely, "S---, you guys know we don't want to be back here."

Game 7 was a clear win for the Rockets, sending the Clippers into an offseason of questions about coach/president Doc Rivers and leading to more dramatic events like DeAndre Jordan making a verbal commitment to Dallas, only to back out of it during an emoji-filled day when he had a change of heart.

Meanwhile, the Rockets were getting the band back together, outside of losing Josh Smith, a key cog of that playoff run. He signed a deal with, you guessed it, the Clippers.

"A lot of luck," said James Harden, who watched that fourth-quarter comeback from the bench. "I don't know, last year's series was kinda crazy and a few games this year have been kinda crazy. Just two really good talented teams that make shots and make comebacks."

The comebacks continued between the teams this season starting on Jan. 18, when the Clippers survived with a 140-132 overtime victory. It was a game in which Rivers sat his starters with L.A. up 94-80 to begin the fourth quarter. Houston responded with a fourth-quarter run as magical as any aspiring writer at the SXSW festival could dream up.

Houston tied the score on a gutty 3-pointer by Marcus Thornton with 7.4 seconds left in regulation, and Dwight Howard scored 36 points and grabbed a career-high 26 rebounds. The Clippers took control in overtime and didn't spoil J.J. Redick's career-high 40-point night.

It was one of those losses that stunned the Rockets considering they had reached a comfort level with the fourth-quarter rally, which gave them confidence they could win the game in overtime. Only it didn't happen.

"This is one of the teams we're going to see down the road," Thornton said after that loss. "We had their number the last two or three games, and we know we let this game slip away. Like I heard James say, we learn from this type of loss and get better."

Thornton is gone now, having been released after a failed trade with Detroit. Smith is back with the Rockets after less than three months on the job with the Clippers, which included a locker room clash with Rivers and assistant coach Mike Woodson.

On Jan. 22, Rivers, admitting a mistake, sent Smith back to Houston. After the trade was finalized, Smith said, "Hell yeah, I'm glad to be back." Smith even joked his father would drive back from L.A. to Houston because he was so happy.

Regardless of your perspective of the rivalry -- respectful, bitter, fun -- it continues with its latest chapter on Wednesday night.

If the Rockets have it their way, they'll continue things with a first-round series in late April.

"It's about us, every game counts for us, no matter who we play, Clippers, Memphis whoever," Harden said. "It's important for us to play well, play together as a team and I think these last couple of weeks we've been doing that. We've been gaining some momentum at the right time, [Wednesday] is another great challenge for us."