Where to begin?
This game was a total roller coaster - a mixture of slop and skill, exuberance and frustration. The dichotomy can be extended to the Clippers' All-Star point guard, Chris Paul, who was equal parts savior and goat. There is no way the Clippers even have a chance to tie the game in the final seconds without the stellar play of Paul the previous handful of minutes, therefore, it is hard to place the loss on his shoulders due to a missed shot.
The main reason for the Clipper loss was James Harden finally decided to play like James Harden. Harden scored 34 points, half of which came from the charity stripe. The refs played a significant roll in the game with some questionable calls going the way of the Rockets, Harden being the main beneficiary.
The game started well for the Clippers. Matt Barnes and J.J. Redick were lights out from deep, the pair combined for 26 of the Clippers 30 first quarter points. The Rockets, on the other hand, were simply ice cold. Houston finished the opening frame 0-9 from deep. Harden was struggling to make shots as usual. The Clippers back-ups were able to hold the lead into the second. It looked like it was going to be a typical Clipper thrashing of the Rockets - - until it didn't.
With the Clippers up 38-32 a few minutes in the second, Harden drove the lane, he was wrapped up and thrown to the ground by Barnes. The Clipper forward received a flagrant one (which I believed to be the right call) but he also woke the sleeping MVP candidate. The Rockets responded by going on a 13-2 run. Harden continued to get to the line but also began to hit shots from the field. He finished with 18 points in the second quarter alone.
The Rockets outscored the Clippers 36-20 in the second quarter despite shooting a much lower percentage from the field. This is because the Clippers struggled to get to the line and continually turned the ball over. The final seconds of the quarter were particularly dismal for the Clippers. Not only did they allow a 3 by Harden, Paul fouled Patrick Beverly with 0.1 remaining on the clock. Beverley promptly hit 2 free throws to stretch the Houston lead to 58-50 at the half.
The third quarter didn't begin much better for the home team. The Rockets quickly stretched the lead to 15. The starters were missing shots left and right. It was looking bad. A run sparked by Big Baby managed to close the gap to 8 but the Rockets once again grew their lead. After a basket on the opening play of the 4th quarter, Houston was up 12 points.
The Clippers responded with a 6-0 run spearheaded by Griffin, who assisted on all three baskets. Then Nate Robinson hit a huge 3 from deep to make it a 1 score game. The Rockets got the lead back to 8 with 7:15 remaining in the game. At which point, CP3 reentered and lit it up. He keyed a Clippers run that culminated in a Paul 3 pointer to tie the game at 96. The refs no-call what looked to be a foul on Blake that would've given the Clippers the lead. Instead, Harden charged down the court for an and-1 that had Houston one point shy of invoking Lawler's Law.
On the ensuing play, Barnes drove for a lay-up, made the tough shot and got the foul but was unable to convert on the free throw. The Clippers forced a miss on the other end but allowed Harden to grab the offensive rebound, he was quickly fouled by Paul. With the Clippers not yet over the limit, the Rockets took the ball out. On the inbounds play, Griffin stole the ball and charged down court where he was met by a back-shuffling Trevor Ariza. The pair collided and the refs decided to call the charge on Blake. Rockets ball up 1 with 12 seconds left.
The ensuing inbounds play, the Rockets appeared to have a five second violation but managed to call a timeout before being whistled. On their next attempt, they got the ball to Harden who was immediately sent to the line where he had been perfect all day. Harden, somewhat surprisingly, went 1 for 2, leaving the door open for a Clippers victory. Sadly, it wasn't to be. Paul, who had been so clutch down the stretch, attempted to drive the lane and force overtime. But stout defense by Ariza forced Paul into a desperation shot that missed badly. The Clippers were unable to get a putback and the horn sounded. Rockets 100, Clipper 98.
While any last second loss is painful, there are some positives to take away from this. First, Blake looked great. He was two assists short of a triple-double and added some key steals and blocks. His legs looked fresh and his return should certainly help turn this team into a contender going forward.
Second, the bench was actually somewhat solid today. Big Baby, Robinson and Austin Rivers all played a major role in the 4th quarter comeback. Jordan Hamilton also looked good before exiting the game with a sprained ankle. Once Jamal Crawford returns healthy and Spencer Hawes is acclimated back with the bench, I think the Clipper back-ups will fare better than main are speculating.
Look, losses like these happen. They always suck. But I think there is more to be encouraged about this game than there is to be discouraged. This game really could've gone either way and with all the foul calls disrupted rotations, the Clippers responded admirably. I would've been a lot more bothered if the Clips had just packed it in late in the 3rd. it's good to see fight in these guys.
I will say, I no longer want to see Houston in the first round. Not because I don't think the Clips can beat them, I just can't watch James Harden standing at the line for an entire series.
The Clippers will look to get back to their winning ways this Tuesday, March 17th, when the welcome the Charlotte Hornets to STAPLES center.