After giving the reigning NBA champions all they could handle in a tough loss, the Los Angeles Clippers now have an opportunity to avenge their most bitter outcome from last season.
With May's playoff defeat to Houston still fresh in their minds, the Clippers take on the Rockets for the first time since that memorable Western Conference semifinal Saturday night.
Los Angeles seemed well on its way to advancing to its first conference finals in franchise history before the Rockets became the ninth team in league history to overcome a 3-1 series deficit. In Houston's most recent visit to Staples Center, it rallied from 17 points down in the third quarter and outscored the Clippers 40-15 in the fourth for a momentum-shifting 119-107 victory in Game 6.
"Just like every other year when you lose in the playoffs, you think about it," Clippers forward Blake Griffin said. "Maybe I thought about it a little bit longer."
The collapse prompted a few notable changes to the Clippers' roster, with proven playoff performer Paul Pierce and Josh Smith brought in to strengthen a bench that was outscored 98-61 by Houston's second unit in the final three defeats.
Los Angeles (4-1) has again looked like a legitimate contender through the early part of this season, winning its first four games and turning a 17-point first-half deficit Wednesday at Golden State into a 10-point lead with under eight minutes left. But once again the Clippers failed to finish, as the undefeated Warriors countered with a 16-2 run en route to a 112-108 triumph.
''We had a lot of game-plan mistakes throughout the game,'' Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. ''That's the difference right now between us and them, them being together and them executing.''
Chris Paul had 24 points and nine assists for the Clippers and is probable for Saturday's showdown despite exiting Wednesday's loss in the final seconds with a strained groin.
Griffin is averaging 28.2 points through Los Angeles' first five outings and recorded 26.9 points and 12.3 rebounds per game during its playoff series with Houston. He was limited to 11 points, though, as the Rockets halted a seven-game skid at Staples Center with a 100-98 win on March 15.
James Harden scored 34 points in that game and totaled 55 in Houston's two regular-season victories over Los Angeles in 2014-15. The 2015 MVP runner-up mustered 25 in the Rockets' two non-playoff defeats to the Clippers.
Harden and Houston got off to an 0-3 start, but he and the Rockets have been on fire of late as they've climbed back to .500 at 3-3. The All-Star guard is averaging 36.0 points during the Rockets' three-game winning streak, highlighted by his 43-point, 13-assist outburst in Friday's 116-110 decision at Sacramento.
''I've tried to be patient and take what the defenses have been giving me,'' he said. ''I've been trying to find something, anything ... to find any rhythm I can.''
The Rockets prevailed despite Dwight Howard sitting out to rest his troublesome back. Second-year center Clint Capela started in his place and posted career highs of 13 points and 12 rebounds.
Howard is expected to play Saturday, which should give a needed boost to a rotation that's currently missing forwards Terrence Jones (lacerated eyelid) and Donatas Motiejunas (back surgery) and guard Patrick Beverley (concussion).