There is a way in which even the most improbable comebacks can feel natural. In Game 1 of the 2012 series between the Memphis Grizzlies and Los Angeles Clippers, the Grizzlies built an early lead, held it, began depending on the lead in the fourth quarter, and repeatedly sacrificed possessions to extended clock kills and ill-advised Rudy Gay isolations. The Clippers, for their part, put Nick Young and Jamal Crawford in, and they drilled—I looked this up to double-check—672 three-pointers and stole the game. Chris Paul told coach Vinny Del Negro to leave him in right before they started to make their big run. It looks strange in the line score, and was shocking in the moment, but the comeback came to feel inevitable and took on its own internal logic well before the final buzzer.
Even if that comeback was unexpected, it makes sense in retrospect. You can see the Clippers get burnt early, establish a normal-ish rhythm in the middle quarters, and then turn it around in the fourth while the Grizzlies flattened out into playing not-to-lose.
I mention this game as a point of comparison because what happened in Los Angeles on Thursday night was different. The Clippers' astonishing fourth quarter collapse made absolutely no goddamn intuitive sense, even as it was happening.
What does this score tell you? Well, both teams played about even through the first half. In the third quarter, the Rockets stopped scoring and were terrible; in the fourth, out of nowhere, for no reason that can be divined by looking at the line score, they absolutely raked the Clippers and ran away with the game.
It did not make much more sense as it was happening. Because ho boy did the Rockets look terrible in that third quarter, even worse than the score indicates. Possession after possession drowned in ineffectual ball movement ending in contested jump shots or, worse, jump shots taken by Josh Smith. Trevor Ariza getting stuffed at the rim. Pablo Prigioni forcing a three-point shot on a fast break. Bad execution and stupid pushes. You know, awful basketball things.
All this bad basketball was suffused with bad vibes, and the palpable frustration of a bunch of angry dudes who could see their season ending right in front of them. Dwight Howard picked up a flagrant foul after he tackled Blake Griffin and then threw his hands up, as if to say "No, I was blocking the shot, you see, with that tackle." A few possessions later, Howard nabbed a tech for pushing DeAndre Jordan after a rebound had cleared. James Harden shoved archenemy Matt Barnes after he got wrapped up on a fast break. When Griffin made an unbelievable flying spinning back-to-the-basket layup, there was no sense that the Rockets were anything more than completely done and back to their natural state, the team that got smeared on their home floor in Game 4 subtly reading hotel reviews on Tripadvisor on their phones while the clock ran out on their season.
A basketball game, moment to moment, is dictated more by randomness than would naturally occur to us. Nick Young personally dispatching the Grizzlies was not a rational, ordered occurrence, even by the standard of things related to Nick Young. But even if you know this and detach from the expectation that something will necessarily go one way or another, it seemed impossible to watch that third quarter and not come away totally convinced that the Rockets were burnt toast.
The Jet. Photo by Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports.
And when they came back, they didn't creep back: they stormed back, then they kept storming, and by the end of the game the Clippers were losers by a comfortable margin that felt even larger than it wound up being.
I went back and re-watched it in an attempt to get a sense of what happened during the Rockets' 23-2 run. Some things were obvious. Corey Brewer scored 15 points, which is the sort of thing your Basketball Experts tend to notice. Josh Smith, who is absolutely horrible at shooting three pointers, sunk three of them in the quarter, including a step-back three that bent logic significantly enough to cause permanent damage.
Other things were more subtle, if still strange. Jason Terry, who has never been a particularly good defender and is now 37 years old, got in a stance and bodied up Chris Paul, making penetration harder than it has seemed all series. Dwight, who seemed on the verge of a nervous breakdown a half hour previous, moved a pipe in his heart and started funneling all his spare energy productively. He dominated the offensive boards and closed off the paint to the Clippers.
James Harden was out of the game for the entirety of the run, which is a thing that is already coming up a lot. The ball probably moved a little more fluidly in Terry's hands than in Harden's, but, realistically, this doesn't seem like a big deal. Harden just happened to inadvertently get out of Josh Smith's way when he was having The Quarter Of His Life, or at least the best quarter of his life since the last one. That weird comeback gravity was in effect; Harden wasn't needed.
As is usually the case with this sort of comeback, the impossible happened quite naturally. The Rockets' bad vibes transfigured, seemingly on their own, into the fuel for a spiteful, illogical fourth-quarter stomping. Chris Paul, beloved unlucky genius, and the Clippers—out from Sterling's prison, finally ready to storm the conference finals—were stopped dead in their tracks by a group of dudes who seemed half-packed for the French Riviera. It doesn't make sense, in retrospect. But as it happened, it did.