The Houston Rockets were staring the end of their playoff run in the face. It’s only Game 2, but the Rockets had lost Game 1 and were down 13 points at home to a Los Angeles Clippers team that had their all-world point guard Chris Paul still in street clothes.
The Rockets finally started to play with some desperation in the second half — they defended better, forced turnovers and held the Clippers to 36.6 percent shooting after the half. They finally kept Blake Griffin in check with 8 points on 2-of-9 shooting in the second half (after he destroyed them in the first half). Houston turned those missed Clippers shots into transition or early offense options the other way. And James Harden finally found his stroke, scoring 20 points in the second half.
All of that — combined with 64 Rockets free throw attempts on the night in what was not a pretty game at times — led to a 109-101 Houston win. The victory ties the series at 1-1 heading to Los Angeles for Game 3 Friday.
That is a game Chris Paul likely plays in, coach Doc Rivers held him out again on Wednesday to help his strained right hamstring recover. The Clippers can feel good that they beat the Rockets in one game and hung with them in another when they were without the quarterback of their offense and best closer.
However, McHale and the Rockets figured out some things that worked, too, For example, a lot of the Rockets’ second half success came in part when they went small, at times using Trevor Ariza to front Griffin in the post.
“That group really was getting the defense turned up, we were getting stops, then we were able to get out and run a little bit. We just got more energy from that group,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said after the game.
Everything started out well for the Rockets Wednesday night. DeAndre Jordan picked up two fouls in the first three minutes, the second one when Dwight Howard pushed Jordan in the back and into the driving player. Doesn’t matter. Jordan goes out, and Glen Davis comes in and Howard could do whatever he wanted. Rockets were +13 the rest of the quarter when Jordan went to the bench. Part of that was bad offense from Los Angeles, too much dribbling, which led to contested shots. The Rockets ran off misses and led by 11 at the end of first quarter.
Then in the second quarter everything changed. Jordan came back in, and when the Clips went on a 12-0 run they lead by three. The Rockets were overplaying the guys on the wings and getting burned, their transition defense was terrible. Plus, the Rockets were 1-of-13 from three.
Meanwhile, the Clippers were 16-of-21 shooting in the second quarter, putting up 41 points in the frame and were up 65-56 at the half. Griffin had 26 points on 11-of-14 shooting up to that point.
Griffin would go on to finish with 34 points, and he’s been the best player in the series. It wasn’t enough.
Early in the third quarter Harden picks up fourth foul, and was sent to the bench. That’s when the Clippers pushed the lead up to 13.
With that the Rockets finally started to defend with some energy and smart play, they went small, and they went on a 14-4 run to cut the lead to three.
“We got out of rhythm offensively, that’s when the game changed for us,” Rivers said. “I thought it was the first game we didn’t trust each other. We got stuck trying to get the ball to Blake so much we forgot there were other guys on the other side of the floor. The ball never changed sides of the floor. That hurt us.”
The rhythm of the game was also thrown off by a lot of fouling — both intentional and because guys were getting inside. The game started just to get choppy and at times sloppy.
But it worked for Houston which went on a 15-2 run across the third and fourth quarters to take 93-88 lead, running off Clipper missed shots and taking advantage of scrambling Clipper transition defense. Clipper floor spacing led to some ugly possessions and poor shots; the Rockets took full advantage of that in transition.
The other key was the Rockets going small and fronting Blake in the post. The Clippers response to this seemed to be to stand around and watch. The Clippers didn’t cut, the ball didn’t move. It allowed the Rockets to stretch the lead out to 10. Griffin had just eight points in the second half on 2-of-9 shooting. Jamal Crawford had 19 points on the night but needed 22 shots to get there,
In a parade to the free throw line during the fourth the Rockets played good enough defense to hold on and get the win.
James Harden also took over in the fourth quarter, scoring 16 of his 32 points on the night (on just 17 shots). Dwight Howard had a fantastic game as well, scoring 24 points and had 16 rebounds. Ariza said seven of his 15 in the fourth quarter.