Although the Los Angeles Clippers were unable to take both games in Houston, they proved more than capable of succeeding against the Rockets without Chris Paul.
Now it appears he’ll be back for the Clippers’ return home.
According to teammate Matt Barnes, Paul will make his first appearance of this Western Conference semifinal series Friday night in Game 3.
Neither Paul nor coach Doc Rivers spoke to the media at the morning shootaround, but Barnes said the All-Star point guard is set to return from a strained left hamstring suffered in Saturday’s Game 7 win over San Antonio.
"He said he’s playing tonight," Barnes said. "You hope he’s ready. His game is such stop-and-go and such an integral part of our team. I hope he can stay healthy throughout the game. We’ll see what he has in store for us."
Paul had worked out on the court Thursday, after which Rivers said "everything is going well," but it will come down to the "eye and feel test" in deciding whether he can play.
A day later, Barnes said he couldn’t gauge how Paul was feeling at shootaround because the Clippers mostly walk through plays and discuss strategy instead of working out.
"Chris is a warrior, which scares all of us," Barnes said. "He wanted to get out there in Game 1 and Game 2, and we held him back."
Even without Paul’s help, Blake Griffin excelled through six quarters against Houston. He had 26 points, 14 rebounds and 13 assists in a 117-101 victory Monday, then tallied 26 points in the first half Wednesday to help the Clippers take a 65-56 lead at the break.
The Rockets, however, adjusted in the final two quarters of Game 2, limiting Griffin to eight points as they overcame a 13-point deficit to win 115-109. Griffin grabbed 15 rebounds but had only four assists.
"Front-and-back double team. I wouldn’t say they spaced it out. They clogged it up, to be honest," Griffin said of Houston’s defensive tactics. "We have to do a better job of reading that and reacting off of it. I have to do a better job of moving off the ball to get open.
"Definitely feels like we let one get away. We came here to win two, but we’re going back with home court now. Got to protect home court."
While Griffin wasn’t much of a factor down the stretch, Houston had to be encouraged by James Harden’s late outburst. The MVP runner-up scored 16 of his 32 points in the fourth quarter, two days after having his lowest-scoring effort of the playoffs with 20.
"We let Game 1 slip away and we didn’t want that feeling for Game 2," Harden said. "It’s going to be a tough two games in a row, but we’ve got our mojo now."
Harden made all 15 of his free throws as the Rockets attempted 64 – tied for second-most in NBA postseason history. Dwight Howard was 8 of 21 at the foul line but still had 24 points and 16 rebounds.
It’s certainly possible the Clippers keep regularly fouling Howard, hitting 43.7 percent of his free throws in the playoffs. While the Rockets can’t count on him to improve, they should expect to be better from long range to help make up the difference. Houston, which attempted an NBA-record 2,680 3-pointers in 2014-15, made a season-low five 3-pointers on 26 attempts in Game 2 and is shooting 27.3 percent from beyond the arc in the last four games.
However, the Rockets committed 14 turnovers Wednesday after having 24 in Game 1.
"We got momentum going into Game 3," Harden said. "Guys are prepared now."
Rivers’ son, Austin, had started in Paul’s place but has more fouls (six) than assists (five) in the series. He had 17 points in Game 1 but scored 10 on Wednesday and committed a costly turnover down four points with 37 seconds to play.
J.J. Redick also saw increased usage in Paul’s absence. He played 46:09 – second-most of his career in a non-overtime game – yet scored 12 points on 3-of-10 shooting.
Redick, Rivers, Barnes and Jamal Crawford combined to go 4 of 22 from 3-point range after hitting 13 of 27 in Game 1.
Houston’s Trevor Ariza had 15 points and 13 rebounds Wednesday, and he’s averaged 17.0 points in the teams’ last four meetings.