By Mark Lamport-Stokes
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - All season, the Los Angeles Clippers have strived to live up to two mantras, "Be Relentless" and "Hard Core," and on Sunday in Houston they will need to deliver on both of them if their playoff run is to continue.
Seemingly on the brink of clinching the franchise's first Western Conference finals berth when leading the Rockets by 19 points in the second half on Thursday, the hosts suffered a late collapse that set up a decisive Game Seven.
The Clippers locker room was a picture of bewildered disappointment after the players had trooped off the Staples Center court, and many of their fans exited the stadium in total disbelief well before the final buzzer sounded.
"There's probably a plethora of emotions when something like this happens," said Clippers coach Doc Rivers, whose next task will be to lift his players' spirits for Sunday's game.
"I felt bad for them, honestly, because they want it so bad, and sometimes you want stuff so bad that you can't get it because you're in your own way, and I thought we clearly got in our own way."
A year after their playoff hopes were rocked by a racism scandal that left previous owner Donald Sterling with a life ban from the NBA, the Clippers have been one of the most impressive teams in the postseason.
Spearheaded by All-Stars Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, they fought back from 2-3 down to beat the defending NBA champion San Antonio Spurs in a pulsating opening round before taking a commanding 3-1 lead over the Rockets.
However, the Clippers failed to close out their Western Conference semi-final series on Tuesday in Houston where they were pounded 124-103, then fell apart in Game Six when victory was beckoning as they were outscored 40-15 in the final quarter.
"We played so well for three quarters, and then ... when you give up 40 points, you've stopped playing, clearly," said Rivers. "What could have went wrong went wrong.
"Hopefully we can learn something from this and get them ready for Sunday. It's just going to take a little while."
The Rockets will aim to make the most of home court advantage as they bid to become only the ninth team to rally from a 3-1 deficit to win a playoff series, the most recent being the Phoenix Suns against the LA Lakers in 2006.
"We've been in this situation several times now, a couple times at home, once on the road," Griffin said of Sunday's must-win game. "We've got to come out and play. It's about who wants it more. I expect us to be ready."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)