May 6, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin (32) dribbles the ball as Houston Rockets forward Josh Smith (5) defends during the first quarter in game two of the second round of the NBA Playoffs at Toyota Center.
Although the Los Angeles Clippers were unable to take both games in Houston, they proved more than capable of succeeding in this series without Chris Paul.
That is, if Blake Griffin can stay at the top of his game.
Possibly still missing their All-Star point guard, the Clippers will look to keep Griffin involved from start-to-finish against the Rockets on Friday night when the series moves to Los Angeles for Game 3.
Paul worked out on the court Thursday, a good sign in his recovery from a strained hamstring suffered in Saturday’s Game 7 win over San Antonio, but his status for this game remains unknown. Coach Doc Rivers said "everything is going well," but it will come down to the "eye and feel test" in deciding whether Paul can play after missing the first two games of this series.
Even without Paul’s help, 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."
Austin Rivers will be prepared to start again in Paul’s place, though he 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, Jamal Crawford and Matt Barnes 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.