KRISTIE RIEKEN, AP Sports Writer
HOUSTON (AP) — Down 3-1 in the series and on the brink of elimination, the Houston Rockets reeled off three straight wins to complete an improbable comeback over the Los Angeles Clippers and return to the Western Conference finals for the first time since 1997.
Now they’ll face a team in Golden State that swept the regular-season series 4-0. Game 1 is Tuesday night in Oakland.
“I don’t think we all came together just to get to the Western Conference finals,” Dwight Howard said. “All of us are in pursuit of that ring. We’re happy, but none of us are satisfied. We just have that focus about us, and we want to win. It’s not going to be easy, and we don’t want it to be. We want to fight for it — for what we think is ours.”
James Harden scored 31 points, Howard had 16 points and 15 rebounds and the Rockets never trailed in a 113-100 victory over the Clippers on Sunday to punch their ticket to the conference finals.
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 3-point play to push it to 88-68.
“That last unit of Game 6 did an amazing job of putting us back in the series even though we were down,” Harden said. “I felt like it was my job to come out for Game 7 and be the leader that I’ve been all year.”
Blake Griffin scored five points in a 9-0 run to cut the lead to eight points with less than 2 1/2 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 3 from the corner to secure the victory.
Coach Kevin McHale, who won three titles in a Hall of Fame career with the Boston Celtics, said he’d take a minute to celebrate before worrying about the Warriors.
“They’re a very good team,” McHale said. “We have got to play our style of basketball. (Sunday) I’ll enjoy this one. (Monday) we have to start prepping for that one. We’ve got to play how we play and just take it to them every, single possession.”
Ariza finished with 22 points and made six 3-pointers.
Every fan in the arena was given a red shirt emblazoned with the words “Clutch City” in yellow letters, bringing back the moniker of the 1994 and ’95 teams that won back-to-back titles. These Rockets lived up to the nickname, winning their third game in a row to become the first team to win a playoff series after trailing 3-1 since the Phoenix Suns did it in 2006 against the Lakers.
The scrappy Rockets, who were the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference, have embraced their sudden underdog role. They adopted an us-against-the-world mentality as most everyone counted them out when they were one game away from their season ending.
“The togetherness and everything we brought to do this, to make this possible, just shows so much heart of this team and just the belief that we never gave up,” Terrence Jones said. “It just carried us.”
Their big deficit in this series was far from the first adversity they’ve faced this season. Harden finished second in MVP voting to Golden State’s Steph Curry with a brilliant regular season that kept the team afloat when Howard was injured.
Howard sat out half of Houston’s games in the regular season before returning to form to help propel the Rockets to a place they haven’t been since their glory days in the 1990s when they won their only two titles.
Howard has averaged 13.8 rebounds in the postseason to lead the NBA and his 17.2 points are second on the team behind Harden’s 26.7. He has also been a leader on defense, piling up 30 blocks in the first 12 games of the playoffs.
He has spoken often about how difficult it was to miss more games than he ever had after being relatively healthy for most of his career. Howard worried if he’d be the player he once was when he returned and is thrilled that he’s helped the team move one step closer to a championship.
“It means the world,” Howard said. “I just want to make sure I do whatever I can or we do whatever we can to not let this moment slip away. I think we were destined for this moment.”
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