Blake Griffin extended his left arm to steal the bounce pass with 17 seconds left and his team trailing by a point. The play triggered a fastbreak on which the only defender between the Clippers forward and the basket was Houston's Trevor Ariza.
As Ariza backpedaled, his feet still moving, Griffin barreled into his counterpart and threw the ball wildly over his shoulders toward the basket as he fell down. The whistle blew. The call? Charging on Griffin, who held his massive hands out in disbelief as he sat on the court.
The sequence said everything you needed to know about Griffin's return Sunday at Staples Center during the Clippers' 100-98 loss to the Rockets.
There was anticipation, drama and ultimately disappointment as Griffin played for the first time in 37 days after being sidelined by surgery to remove a staph infection from his right elbow.
Wearing a padded white sleeve to protect the elbow, Griffin played like someone who had just sat out 15 games. He was often out of control while committing five of his team's 20 turnovers and five fouls to go with his 11 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists in a team-high 40 minutes.
"I didn't put us in a position to win," said Griffin, who reported experiencing expected soreness in the elbow late in the game. "I have to be better. . . . Five turnovers is awful."
The Clippers almost overcame their own bumbling, but Chris Paul's fadeaway jumper over Ariza that could have tied the score in the final seconds was an airball. And so the Clippers (42-25) fell into a tie with Dallas and San Antonio for fifth place in the Western Conference after consecutive defeats to the Mavericks and Rockets.
James Harden finished with 34 points for Houston, which prevailed despite giving up Clippers runs of 9-0, 7-0 and 6-0 in the fourth quarter.
Griffin said he realized he might be able to play against Houston by the middle of last week, when he regained enough strength in his elbow to extend his shooting range to the free-throw line. He said he wasn't concerned about his conditioning because he had spent most of the previous three weeks running with trainer Robbia Davis.
Kermit the Frog of "Sesame Street" introduced Griffin before the game as part of a Muppets promotion, saying, "He scores, he rebounds, he leaps like a frog and he's back in the lineup . . . No. 32, Blake Griffin!"
Griffin's first points came on a put-back of his own miss midway through the first quarter, but it soon became clear he was uncomfortable shooting the midrange jumpers that have become a big part of his offensive arsenal. He took only two, missing both.
Griffin later explained that his reluctance was related to retaining only about 60% of the strength in his triceps muscles.
"A free throw feels like I'm at the top of the key," said Griffin, who made four of 10 shots overall. "The two [jump] shots I shot tonight were both short and I felt like I heaved them up there, so it's just a matter of kind of getting that strength back."
Griffin also needs to get a bit more in sync with his teammates. An outlet pass from center DeAndre Jordan (20 rebounds, five points) intended for Griffin in the first quarter sailed out of bounds and a Paul pass headed Griffin's way in the second quarter was intercepted.
"It's tough coming back," Paul said. "Everybody wants you to be that same guy, but that takes time."
Clippers Coach Doc Rivers said he regretted playing Griffin 20 minutes in the first half because he felt it contributed to Griffin's ragged play in the final two quarters. As if to underscore his team's need to regain its rhythm and timing, Rivers scheduled a rare practice Monday on the day between games.
"It's hard to be patient when it's such a tight race and everybody has to get their spot," Griffin said of the playoff push. "It's hard to be patient, but Doc says when one thing's not working, do something else to help your team and that's what I need to find. I need to find an area where I can help if not scoring the ball."