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Clippers' Game 2 loss to Rockets proves they need Chris Paul back

The Clippers' loss to Houston in Game 2 of playoff series is a reminder that they need Chris Paul to play

Shortly before taking his place on the Clippers' bench with a sore leg for a second consecutive playoff game against the Houston Rockets on Wednesday, Chris Paul tried to look on the bright side.

After all, he reminded his teammates, they had just won one without him.

"I told the guys… if it's not broke, don't fix it," said Paul.

Well, OK, but, um, Chris? It's now sort of broke. On the verge of suffering their own personal meltdown during another draining night at the Toyota Center, the Houston Rockets broke it.

Wrestling their way back from a potential second consecutive embarrassment, grappling in front of a crowd whose roars grew louder with every takedown, the Rockets finally broke the Clippers of the notion they can easily win this series without their best player and emotional leader.

On the verge of suffering a loss that could have easily led to a series sweep, the Rockets bristled their way to a desperate 115-109 victory.

"We went in there and scrapped and fought for it," said sweat-soaked Rockets Coach Kevin McHale.

"It was the first game we didn't trust each other," said a frowning Clippers Coach Doc Rivers.

The second-round series is now tied one game apiece, and while the Clippers return to Staples Center for Friday's Game 3 with home-court advantage, this tussle is more even than it looks.

For the Clippers, there is still a bright side, as they dominated the mostly hapless Rockets for much of these two games without Paul — even outscoring them 41-21 in the second quarter Wednesday — and clearly stole much of their mojo.

But the downside for the Clippers is, by the time this night ended with James Harden flexing and Dwight Howard bouncing and the Toyota Center thundering, the Rockets may have rediscovered that edge.

"Our energy level picked up, and the guys caught a rhythm from our energy," McHale said.

On his way off the court after the victory, while trying to dodge the falling red and white streamers and tune out the jeering fans, Rivers hugged a limping Paul and whispered something in his ear.

"I told him we had our shot here tonight," related Rivers. "I told him to go tell the guys he would be very proud of them."

Darn. Here's hoping he had ordered Paul to get that strained left hamstring healed, and fast.

There is no doubt the Clippers are comparable to the vastly overrated 56-win Rockets even with Paul tied behind their back. But can they win three of the next five games against the Rockets without his tough veteran presence?

It might not have been a coincidence that the last time the Clippers had a chance Wednesday, one of Paul's replacements wound up on a blooper reel. With the Clippers trailing by four points and 37 seconds left, Austin Rivers drove downcourt past Harden and then slipped and slid into oblivion, losing the ball out of bounds.

"He just lost the ball, but we didn't mind that," said his father Doc. "In that situation, it was whoever gets it, goes, and we liked him with Harden, who didn't want to foul."

What the coach could not like is that his son and Jamal Crawford replaced Paul by combining to make 10 of 31 shots with just seven combined assists. What the coach admitted he hated was that J.J. Redick also helped fill the Paul gap by playing 46 of 48 minutes, exhausting himself into a three-for-10 shooting night and weary defense on Harden, who scored 32.

"That's on me," Rivers said of Redick.

And now, it's on Paul, which is where he wanted it in the Game 7 first-round victory against the San Antonio Spurs, and which is where he will gladly embrace it if possible. But who knows if it's possible? Considering this is a hidden time-bomb of an injury, who knows what will happen?

"I don't know what I should see, I don't know what to look for," said Rivers, who suffered a similar injury during his playing days and then reinjured it on his first day back, even though he felt great at the time. "We'll see."

Rivers said Paul will test the hamstring in live action on the court Thursday for the first time since suffering the injury Saturday. If he can move, it would be surprising if Paul doesn't at least attempt to return to the lineup Friday.

The Clippers need him. If they were fooled by their easy opening victory against the Rockets without Paul, they were bought back to Earth on Wednesday in the same manner that the Rockets' Jason Terry leaped to the Earth late in the third quarter in what may have been the play that symbolized the game. Hedo Turkoglu had stolen the ball from Harden and fallen to the floor when Terry pounced on him and fiercely fought him to a jump ball. Terry won the tip that led to two more Rockets points to end the quarter with the Clippers holding an 85-83 lead that soon vanished.

"Those things are huge plays, and a lot of times nobody will write about that, and that's a huge point in the game for us," said McHale.

Point taken. Paul needed. Now.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

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