It was odd, the Clippers looking like they might win a second consecutive game on the Houston Rockets’ court while barely breaking a sweat only to falter in the second half of a 115-109 loss to the Houston Rockets in Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals on Wednesday night at the Toyota Center. Here are five takeaways from the game:
1. The Clippers foundered without Chris Paul’s poise in the second half. The offensive execution that was so sharp in the second half of Game 1 and the second quarter of Game 2 dissipated into the Toyota Center air after the Clippers took a 13-point lead in the third quarter Wednesday. The Clippers looked unsure of themselves while moving the ball without a sense of purpose. Their 44 points in the second half were only three more than they scored in the second quarter, when they had appeared to seize control of the game and the series.
2. James Harden finally got going. You could make a fairly strong argument that the Rockets were better with Harden off the court through the first seven quarters of the series, when he did little besides miss shots and turn the ball over. Then the runner-up in most-valuable-player voting started playing like one, scoring 16 points while playing the entire fourth quarter. “Basically, it was up to me to go out there and push us forward,” said Harden, who finished with 32 points.
3. Blake Griffin couldn’t sustain his superhuman first half. The Clippers forward joined Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and LeBron James as the only players to score at least 24 points while making 75% or more of their shots in the first half of a playoff game since the 2005-06 season. Then the Rockets put Dwight Howard on Griffin in the third quarter and things changed, Griffin scoring 10 points in the second half as the Clippers failed to match up with a smaller Houston lineup.
4. Free throws were costly for the Clippers. The Clippers intentionally fouled Howard and Josh Smith at times, but there were plenty of other occasions in which they sent the Rockets to the free-throw line without intending to do so. Howard shot 21 free throws, making eight, and Harden made all 15 of his to help the Rockets wallop the Clippers, 64-32, in free throws attempted. Had Houston made more than 42, the game would have been a rout.
5. All eyes turn to Paul for Game 3. Hamstrings can be tricky, as the Clippers are discovering while assessing Paul’s availability on what seems like a minute-to-minute basis. If he returns Friday night at Staples Center after sitting out the previous two games, Paul will have had five full days off since he strained his left hamstring in the first half of Game 7 in the first round against the San Antonio Spurs. Paul was scheduled to begin on-court workouts Thursday, giving the Clippers a better idea of whether he could play in what is suddenly a pivotal game for the Clippers.
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