The Clippers showed they could win without Chris Paul.
Winning with Paul in a charcoal suit, DeAndre Jordan on the bench for long stretches and their offensive composure disappearing in the second half? Different story.
Blake Griffin scored only eight of his 34 points after halftime, not nearly enough to save the Clippers on a night the Rockets buried them with a barrage of 64 free throws, the vast majority coming in non-intentional situations.
"They shot 117 free throws tonight," Clippers Coach Doc Rivers said in only a slight exaggeration.
Houston guard James Harden made all 15 of his free throws on the way to 32 points to help tie a series that shifts to Staples Center for Game 3 on Friday night and Game 4 on Sunday evening.
"We're not going to hang our heads," said Griffin, who also had 15 rebounds and four assists. "This team is going to fight no matter who's on the floor."
Dwight Howard was strong across the board with 24 points and 16 rebounds for the Rockets, who wiped out deficits of 13 points in the third quarter and three early in the fourth quarter.
The Clippers seemed disoriented on offense when the Rockets switched to a smaller lineup in the second half. Griffin made two of nine shots after halftime and the rest of his teammates similarly sputtered.
"I thought it was the first game we didn't trust each other, the pass," Rivers said. "We did two things: The ball didn't move and we got stuck trying to get the ball to Blake so much that we forgot there were other guys on the other side of the floor, and the ball never changed sides of the floor. That hurt us."
Jamal Crawford scored 22 points off the bench for the Clippers but needed 22 shots to get there, making only six. J.J. Redick and Matt Barnes were largely nonfactors while playing much of the game in foul trouble, combining to make five of 17 shots.
Jordan played only 25 minutes because of early foul trouble and the small Rockets lineup, finishing with 16 points and 12 rebounds.
"We usually enjoy small lineups because Blake can guard smalls and D.J. is great," Rivers said. "We just didn't handle it well tonight for whatever reason."
The Clippers had an 88-85 lead after Crawford made a three-pointer early in the fourth quarter, but the momentum was already tilting in the Rockets' direction after they had outscored the Clippers by seven points in the third quarter.
Trevor Ariza made a three-pointer and Harden followed with two more, the Rockets making three consecutive shots from long range after starting the game only two of 18 from that distance to take a 98-89 lead.
Missing was the poise the Clippers usually get late in games from Paul, who sat out a second consecutive game because of a strained left hamstring.
The Clippers were still within four points with 37 seconds left when Austin Rivers slipped and lost the ball out of bounds. That was pretty much the ballgame.
"They played with more thrust and [the mind-set of] we're in a do-or-die situation," Crawford said of the Rockets. "It was a desperate situation and they crawled back and you can tip your hat to them."
The Clippers shuffled quickly off the court afterward, not lingering for the high-fives that Paul had given in heavy supply at halftime with his team ahead by nine points.
Griffin made 11 of 14 shots in the first half, and Jordan scored eight of his 10 points on dunks.
The lead, and the good vibes, would not last.