Clippers use a fast start to beat Rockets

LOS ANGELES — On their first night home after a two-week, eight-game Grammy road trip, the Clippers were unstoppable. They couldn’t miss a shot. They scored as many points in one quarter as most teams score in a half.
But they couldn’t keep up the pressure. Maybe it was the sheer exhaustion of playing back-to-back games Sunday and Monday, flying home from the east coast and arriving after 1 a.m. Tuesday morning with an ample dose of jet lag. At some point after the first quarter, they lost steam.
They still beat the Houston Rockets 106-96 at Staples Center, their third win in a row, but they weren’t entirely satisfied with the last three periods.
“That happens sometimes,” forward Blake Griffin said. “We’ve got to be sure we really put teams away so we can relax a little bit. But we can’t let off the gas pedal at all.”
The Clippers shot 77 percent in the first quarter and scored 46 points, the most points by an NBA team in any quarter this season. But their shooting percentages in the next three quarters dropped to 32 percent, 37.5 percent and 47 percent.
It could have had something to do with the finish of a grueling road trip and a long flight back home, but that didn’t sound plausible given their hot opening period.
Asked about a fatigue factor, coach Vinny Del Negro said, “There wasn’t one in the first quarter. Maybe as the game went on, but I just wasn’t pleased with our second unit’s energy. I don’t think they had any sense of urgency. We relied a lot on the starters and their energy.”
There was plenty. Chauncey Billups and Caron Butler, both of whom missed Monday’s game against the 76ers because of back soreness, were back in the lineup and firing away. Billups was 6 of 9 shooting for 19 points, his first double-digit game since last season. Butler, who made 7 of 9 shots in the first quarter, scored 19. Griffin had 20 and 11 rebounds, and Chris Paul had 10 points and 11 assists.
The Rockets were without leading scorer James Harden, who was out with a sprained right ankle, but they got 14 points from Jeremy Lin and 17 from Chandler Parsons.
They trailed the Clippers by as many as 22 points in the third quarter but closed to 11 early in the fourth. Del Negro even put Paul and Billups back in the game to help stall a late Houston charge.
“The way they play, they’re never out of the game,” Paul said of the Rockets, who came in as the league’s highest-scoring offense, averaging 106.3 points a game. “They play fast, they never walk the ball up the court, they shoot a lot of threes and they’re always going to be in every game.”
As it turned out, the Clippers needed to rely on their big first-quarter cushion.
“We were just moving the ball well,” Griffin said. “Guys were hitting shots. We played pretty good defense. Everything was kind of going for us. But we’ve got to do a better job not letting up for the next three quarters.”
The Clippers close out the pre-All-Star portion of their schedule with another back-to-back set, facing the Lakers on Wednesday night. It’s a chance for a strong finish against a team still trying to position itself for a run at the playoffs.
And, as usual, it’s for LA bragging rights. Right now, the Clippers own them.
“There’s no secret. It’s a big game,” Billups said. “We’re used to being the little brother, and now we have a chance to play the big brother and beat the big brother. You’ve going to take that chance. It’s always a big game. It’s a spirited rivalry.”