What transpired here Wednesday night could hardly be called a playoff preview, even though the Clippers and Houston Rockets are currently aligned to meet in the first round.
The Rockets were missing starters Dwight Howard and Patrick Beverley, both of whom are expected to return in the not-too-distant future.
The Clippers were without All-Star forward Blake Griffin, who could be back in about a week.
More significant for the Clippers, the reserves whose ragged play early in the fourth quarter was largely responsible for their 110-105 loss at the Toyota Center don’t figure to log nearly as much time in the playoffs.
Don’t expect to see a lineup of Hedo Turkoglu, Austin Rivers, Glen Davis, Jamal Crawford and Matt Barnes on the court together at any point in the postseason, unless it’s at the end of a blowout.
That was the collection of players who surrendered a game-turning 10-1 run for the Rockets to start the fourth quarter. Rivers committed two turnovers and the Clippers missed their first six shots before the starters reentered the game.
Things didn’t immediately improve, the Rockets scoring the next five points to take a 99-86 lead on the way to ending a six-game losing streak against the Clippers.
“They got on a run, and we talked about that,” said Crawford, whose 24 points led all scorers. “There’s always a five- or six-minute gap, especially in our losses, where teams put together a run and we don’t really respond well.”
The Clippers (37-21) closed the deficit to 109-105 when Crawford made a finger-roll layup with 37 seconds left, but James Harden (21 points) made one of two free throws and the Clippers missed their final three shots while losing to the Rockets for the first time since March 2013.
“Very important,” Harden, who shook off a rolled ankle late in the game, said of the victory. “Just to give us the confidence to beat these guys.”
Harden made only four of 13 shots but salvaged his performance by repeatedly going to the free throw line, where he was 10 for 12.
The Rockets took 30 free throws to the Clippers’ 19 and tied a season high with 17 three-pointers on 44 attempts.
“Threes and free throws is what they do and it’s why we’ve been so successful, not letting them get both,” said Clippers point guard Chris Paul, who had 22 points and 14 assists. “Tonight they got everything.”
Clippers Coach Doc Rivers said the three-pointers were primarily a result of dribble penetration, the Rockets continually sucking in the defense before finding open players on the perimeter.
Clippers center DeAndre Jordan capitalized on the absence of Howard to collect 22 points and 19 rebounds, Jordan’s sixth consecutive game with at least 15 rebounds. Jordan even made four of his first six free throws before missing two with 12 seconds remaining.
It didn’t matter as the Clippers dropped the opener of a four-game trip that makes its next stop in Memphis on Friday.
Rivers said he wasn’t concerned after his team lost a second consecutive game and fell to 4-3 without Griffin.
“I know y’all’s job is to overreact to every game, and I get that,” Rivers told reporters. “But fortunately, we can’t. We have to think about Memphis now. It’s a tough road trip, so our game and our job is to go one game at a time.”
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