The Cleveland Cavaliers punched their ticket to the NBA Eastern Conference finals on Thursday, but in the West the Los Angeles Clippers stunningly failed to get past the Houston Rockets.
Cleveland superstar LeBron James got plenty of help from his supporting cast in the Cavaliers’ 94-73 victory over the Chicago Bulls.
With the win the Cavs completed a four-games-to-two triumph over the Bulls in their best-of-seven second-round series, and will now face either the Atlanta Hawks or Washington Wizards for a place in the NBA finals.
In Los Angeles, the Clippers had appeared to be heading for a similar series win.
But the Rockets put together a stunning comeback, erasing a 19-point third-quarter deficit to shock the clippers 119-107 and force a decisive game seven back in Houston on Sunday.
“We gave this one away, there’s no doubt about that,” said Clippers coach Doc Rivers, whose team was out-scored 40-15 in the fourth quarter. “But it’s still 3-3, and we have a game seven.”
Rivers admitted it would be tough for his players to regroup after their second straight failure to put away a series which they had led 3-1.
It was an outcome that looked impossible when Rockets star James Harden went to the bench with 1:33 remaining in the third quarter, his team trailing by 17.
Harden never even got back in the game, as Corey Brewer and Josh Smith spearheaded the Rockets’ remarkable resurgence.
Brewer and Smith combined for 29 points over the final 12 minutes, each finishing with 19.
“This is what we fought all season for — for home court to be able to put the pressure back on them for a game seven at our house,” Smith said.
Blake Griffin, who finished with 28 points for Los Angeles, didn’t score in the final period — nor did Matt Barnes or DeAndre Jordan.
“We got very tentative,” Rivers said. “Very few people event wanted to shoot in stretches. It happens, but it’s awful to watch.”
– Cavs seize chance –
There was no such drama in Chicago, where the Cavaliers seized their opportunity to eliminate the Bulls despite a tough shooting night for James and a first-half injury to Kyrie Irving.
James connected on just seven of 23 attempts from the floor, but he still finished one rebound shy of a triple-double with 15 points, 11 assists and nine rebounds.
The four-time NBA Most Valuable Player said that, as always, he just tried to make the most of his team’s chance to advance.
“I just love the moment and I just try to not waste the opportunity,” he said. “Is it always going to work out that way? No. There’s going to be series where you can close out and win and you just don’t do it. For me, my mindset is just to go out and try to win every game.”
Irving reinjured his left knee in the second quarter and sat out much of the game, but a string of lesser-known players stepped up to help the Cavs seal the series.
Matthew Dellavedova scored 11 of his 19 points in the fourth quarter, Iman Shumpert scored 13 points and pulled down seven rebounds and J.R. Smith added 12 points and eight rebounds for the Cavaliers.
“The power of team trumps all,” Cleveland coach David Blatt said.
While James will be playing in his fifth straight Eastern Conference finals, the last four were during his tenure in Miami.
The Cavaliers are back in the conference finals for the first time since 2009.