HOUSTON -- The Houston Rockets upended the Los Angeles Clippers 119-107 Thursday night to force a Game 7 on Sunday. The Rockets rallied from 19 points down to score 40 fourth-quarter points. The comeback, of course, was fueled by the players on the floor, but it was coach Kevin McHale who made three key decisions that helped with the victory.
1. Sit James Harden
This was the hardest decision of them all. Harden was 1-for-7 from the floor in the third quarter, and was taken out for Trevor Ariza with 1:33 remaining. At that point, the Rockets were down by as much as 17. So McHale went with a lineup that displayed more ball movement and focused on Josh Smith and Ariza from the outside, Corey Brewer on drives and Dwight Howard on post-ups. The Rockets finished the quarter with a 9-0 run to cut a 19-point deficit to just 13.
Without Harden, McHale risked a heap of criticism should Houston's comeback not work out. Harden sat next to the coaches during the rest of the game, getting up to jog and to cheer his teammates on late in the fourth. McHale inserted Harden for Howard, a poor free throw shooter, with just 61 seconds left, for about 10 seconds. At that point, the Rockets were up nine.
“Yeah, I was thinking about putting [Harden] back in the game, but those guys earned the right to finish that game, one way or the other,” McHale said. “After a while, he had sat there long enough and those guys had a good rhythm and they kept getting stops and I’m like, ‘I’m just going to let them go.’ Hey, James got a lot of rest, so on Sunday he’ll be ready to come out and rock and roll for us.”
2. Play Josh Smith
After the Rockets fell to 3-1 in the series, McHale moved Smith into the starting lineup at power forward over Terrence Jones. It was a tricky move; both players were struggling in the series. But McHale thought Smith’s passing ability gave him the slight edge.
It worked in a Game 5 victory. Smith started again in Game 6, and played a major role in the incredible second-half comeback.
In the fourth quarter, Smith went 4-for-5 from the floor and scored 14 points. He made consecutive 3-point shots to cut a nine-point deficit to five with 6:25 to play. He later scored on a driving layup to trim the Clippers' lead to three. But his biggest play was a pass through traffic that caught Brewer in stride along the baseline for a dunk to tie the game at 102-102 with 4:21 left.
“When we tied the ballgame up, the rhythm was feeling the right way,” Smith said. “The ball was popping, the defense was scrambling, we were executing the exact coverages and I saw everybody’s faces. We looked like we were going to try and do something special.”
3. Calm everybody down
McHale doesn’t get caught up in moods, a sense of urgency or desperation talk. He just wants his team to play.
With things looking bleak in the third quarter, the Rockets' coach pleaded with his group to calm down. McHale told his players to go back to the basics of the offense -- to attack the basket and draw fouls. If the paint is pinched, settle for outside shots.
McHale also wanted his players to keep people in front of them on the defensive end. If that worked, the Rockets could get out on the break after misses and run. The Rockets outrebounded the Clippers 60-41 in the game and held them to zero second-chance points in the second half.
McHale made sure his team stuck with the game plan for a full 48 minutes and didn't go haywire when the game seemed out of hand. And now the Rockets have a Game 7 at home, with a chance to advance to the Western Conference finals.
“Well, momentum is all a relative thing,” McHale said. “We had to win this game to get back to Houston, and in Houston we’ve just got to take care of business. We have to play how we have to play.”