Clutch City Once More

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Update: This article was originally published for the Houston Chronicle on May 18, 2015. The Rockets ended up falling to the Warriors next round, still sad face.

We’ve got to hold on, to what we’ve got. It doesn’t make a difference if we make it or not. We’ve got each other and that’s a lot for love. We’ll give it a shot. 

“Oh we’ve got to hold on, ready or not. You live for the fight when its all that you’ve got. Whoa, we’re halfway there, whoa, livin’ on a prayer. Take my hand, we’ll make it I swear, whoa, livin’ on a prayer.”

Bon Jovi

Kenny Smith, Mario Elie, Hakeem Olajuwon, Vernon Maxwell- none of them were walking onto that hardwood with the crimson emblazoned ‘R’ any more. They were simply spectators of a legacy they left behind.

No, it was time for a new band of brothers to shine- a motley crew of underrated, underappreciated, misunderstood, and occasionally reviled players. Out with Kenny and Marioand Mad Max and the Dream.

In came the new ‘Jet’ – JET Terry – flanked by Trevor Ariza, back for a second time. There bombed away Josh Smith, so loathed previously that intelligent basketball people would joke that the Rockets picked him up just so they could cut him and subsequently go on a 10 game winning streak. Terrence Jones, gleefully doing whatever was asked of him. Or Pablo Prigioni, on his 38th birthday, busting out an invisibility cloak and a Gatorade bottle probably filled with water from the fountain of youth. And Corey Brewer running up and down the court in the most recklessly energetic display of basketball since the Tasmanian Devil in “Space Jam.” Dwight Howard, fresh off his heel turn with the Lakers, continuing a playoff run to remind everyone why he was once regarded as the best center in basketball. And the foul-baiting straw that stirs the drink, H-Town’s MVP, James Harden himself. 

Heavy is the head that wears the crown. From the two championships in the 90’s that spawned the term to Tracy McGrady’s 13 points in 35 seconds to a mascot named Clutch, #ClutchCity was everywhere. It was a way of life. More than that, one could sense that it was a burden. You knew the questions would start. The narrative vultures had started to slowly circle the wagons, ready to pounce. Why can Daryl Morey never succeed in the playoffs? Are James Harden and Dwight Howard the most unattractive franchise cornerstones ever? Can Harden win as the lead dog? Where’s the leadership from James Harden? 

“Nothing that ever took place, the first championship and especially the second would’ve happened without ‘Choke City.’” 

That’s from mouth of Rudy Tomjanovich himself. And here’s the funny thing about journeys. What comes easy doesn’t last. What beats you down is what can push you forward. What comes toughest sticks the longest. It wasn’t that those Rockets won simply by overcoming Choke City; they won thanks to Choke City. 

So when the Clippers beat the brakes off a dispirited and disinterested Rockets team on Mother’s Day, it was easy to write them off. Here they were, a few days removed from Matt Barnes yelling profanities at James Harden’s mother, and Harden himself missing in action while his team was getting pistol whipped on Mother’s Day. Pride? Where was the pride? And then Mario Elie calmly reminded everyone: one game at a time. The legend of Rockets past to Rockets present. One game at a time. 

And at their lowest point, down double digits in the 4th quarter of Game 6, with a less than 3% probability of winning, the engines suddenly roared to life, and the players refused to let themselves be victims of narrative, refusing to feel sorry for themselves or allow anyone else to do so. No more gimmicks. No more tricks. Just basketball. Let Chris Paul jump onto Dwight Howard’s back like a rabid squirrel. Just play basketball. One game at a time. One quarter at a time. Houston we had takeoff.

From one of the most improbable 4th quarter comebacks in NBA history then to a wire to wire demolition, that misfit band of brothers delivered the Rockets to the Western Conference Finals for the first time since those championship years, emerging victorious after staring down the barrel of a 3-1 deficit just like – guess who? – those championship Rockets themselves. 

Time is a flat circle, and history repeats itself. The faces are different, but the values and the principles remain unchanged. The tired tropes and narratives, if not broken, suddenly stood on much shakier ground. Like Bon Jovi sang, when everything was stripped away, and there was nothing to fight for except the pride of the fight itself, the Rockets woke up and aborted their funeral. Mark Twain called. He says that the reports of Houston’s death were greatly exaggerated.

The triumph against the Mavericks in Round 1 was nice, but that was simple and straightforward against an inferior and overmatched opponent. It was the Clippers that really mattered, triumph over a team of equal or greater quality capable of taking them to the woodshed. Who knows what the rest of these playoffs hold in store? But whatever happens next week and beyond, you can be sure of one thing.

“We weren’t about to let them pull an us on us,” said Dwight after a euphoric, paradigm-shifting game 7 victory Sunday. He knew, as did everyone in the arena while confetti rained down from the rafters. #ClutchCity belongs to the Houston Rockets. #ClutchCity is reborn.

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