HOUSTON – The Houston Rockets are heading to the Western Conference finals for the first time in 18 years after overcoming a 3-1 series deficit to eliminate the Los Angeles Clippers.
"It's the ultimate confidence booster," James Harden said. "There's only a handful of teams that's done that. We fought back. We fought three really hard games and came away with it."
Harden scored 31 points, Dwight Howard had 16 points and 15 rebounds and the Rockets never trailed in a 113-100 victory over the Clippers on Sunday, sending them to the conference finals for the first time since 1997.
It's the ninth time in NBA history that a team has overcome a 3-1 series deficit to win a playoff series.
The Rockets overcame a 19-point third-quarter deficit in Game 6 on Thursday night to stay alive. No such heroics were needed Sunday when they were up by 17 after three and Howard opened the fourth quarter with a three-point play to push it to 88-68.
"When you're down 19 on the road, it's easy to give in and just say, 'Maybe next year,"' Harden said. "But I think the injuries throughout the entire year kind of made us fight through adversity no matter what. We always find a way to fight, and another case was being down 3-1."
Blake Griffin scored five points in a 9-0 run to cut the lead to eight points with less than 2½ minutes remaining. Harden made a pair of free throws after that, but a dunk by DeAndre Jordan got the Clippers within eight again. This time, Trevor Ariza hit a three from the corner to secure the victory.
Howard was nervous until Ariza hit the final three.
"Please, we can't let them pull an us on us," Howard said he was thinking.
Griffin had 27 points and Chris Paul had 26 points and 10 assists.
"It's disappointing," Griffin said. "We were close, but close doesn't really count. We were up 3-1 and didn't put them away. We can't look at anybody but ourselves."
Ariza finished with 22 points and made six three-pointers.
The Rockets won their third consecutive game to become the first team to win a playoff series after trailing 3-1 since the Suns did it in 2006 against the Lakers.
After taking a two-game lead after four games the Clippers looked destined to be heading to the conference finals for the first time in franchise history. But they failed in all three chances to put Houston away and are now left to ponder their collapse as they head home early yet again.
"I love my team," Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. "I love the fact that they wanted to win so bad that, in my opinion, we almost couldn't win. We have to fix that part. It requires great trust in each other. Our guys were trying to do it on their own."