The Clippers looked like they wanted a break. They have played every other day since April 22 — while other teams have had some healthy rests during the playoffs — and Los Angeles was counting on some time off. All they had to do was close out their series against the Rockets Tuesday, and they would have almost a week off to rest Chris Paul’s hamstring.
Instead, the Clippers started their vacation early, playing like a team that expected their opponent to roll over.
Meanwhile, the Rockets came out and played with desperation and passion. From the start, the Rockets were pounding the ball inside and defending with energy. James Harden was playing like an MVP candidate again.
“We attacked,” Rockets’ coach Kevin McHale said after the game. “We finally, we got to the basket, we got our points in the paint, we tried to attack. We finally played more like we tried to play throughout the year. We finally played downhill.”
The result was a 124-103 Houston win. That makes the series 3-2 Clippers, heading back to Los Angeles for Game 6 Thursday night.
The changes the Clippers need to make are less about Xs and Os and more about attitude, Clippers coach Doc Rivers said.
“They just played harder, they were more focused,” Rivers said. “They played like they were the desperate team, we didn’t play very desperate tonight. So give them credit. I thought they took us out of all our stuff offensively.”
Harden was central to Houston’s attack, putting up 26 points (on 9-of-20 shooting), 11 rebounds, and 10 assists — a playoff triple-double. The Clippers tried to force the ball out of his hands, but he made the right read and hit passes to open guys all night.
All the Rockets were moving the ball and getting it inside, they shot 24-of-30 at the rim on the night and had 32 made shots in the paint on 68 percent shooting. They did a good job of getting the ball inside via the pass, not just dribble penetration. They also got DeAndre Jordan in early foul trouble, which helped open up the paint.
“We’re better when we play inside out, when we play downhill and attack,” McHale said. “We’re one of the better teams in the league at points in the paint and we just weren’t doing it.”
The Rockets came out as you’d expect from a team facing elimination, with the best energy and offense we had seen all series. Josh Smith was moved into the starting lineup in an effort to improve ball movement, and it worked. That said Clippers started 4-of-18 shooting and still were hanging around. The Rockets did a good job of getting the ball inside, they had 20 points in the paint in the first quarter, and Houston closed the quarter on 12-4 run. It was 27-22 Rockets after one.
In the second quarter the Clippers made their run and tied the game up at one point, and you started to wonder if this would turn out like the last couple games. However, the Rockets went on a 9-0 run to take a comfortable lead again before the half. The Rockets grabbed half of their missed shots as an offensive rebounds in the first half, and with the attacking style the Rockets were up 63-48.
This time around the Clippers were the team that could not get stops. Part of that was Jordan getting in foul trouble. With no Jordan to check him, Howard had 20 points and 15 rebounds on the night.
Houston had a much more balanced attack — Trevor Ariza had 22 points, Corey Brewer added 15. It seemed everyone was making plays.
Meanwhile, the Clippers were the two man show. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin combined for 52 points on 56.8 percent shooting. The rest of the Clippers shot 31.8 percent. Part of that was good defense, part of that was Los Angeles just missing shots.
The Rockets played their best game of the series. The question is can they do it on the road in Game 6. Or will we see a more focused Clipper team looking to end the series and get a little rest.