Pushed to the edge of their season and with doubt surrounding them, the Houston Rockets responded to the challenge they were presented.
The Rockets won their must-win Game 5 Tuesday night, routing the Clippers, 124-103, by producing their best offensive and defensive performance of this second-round playoff series at the Toyota Center to stave off elimination from the Western Conference playoffs.
But even with James Harden delivering a triple-double of 26 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists despite being sick, with Dwight Howard doing his thing with 20 points and 15 rebounds, and with Trevor Ariza giving 22 points and a strong defensive effort, the Rockets remain in a must-win situation.
They trail the best-of-seven series, 3-2, and have to beat the Clippers again in Game 6 at Staples Center on Thursday night to force a winner-take-all Game 7 here Sunday.
Only eight teams have come back from a 3-1 deficit to win an NBA playoff series, the last being the Phoenix Suns in 2006.
The Rockets seek to make it nine.
“We knew it was win or go home,” Harden said. “We had a great opportunity in front of our home crowd to regain our swagger. We did that from the beginning of the game.”
Harden’s coach, Kevin McHale, said his All-Star guard “had an IV” Tuesday morning, but still “played a great game for us and we needed it.”
Harden tried to downplay his illness, but he kept coughing while at the podium during his postgame interview. He played 42 minutes 52 seconds and looked tired.
“I’m all right,” said Harden, who was nine-for-20 from the field. “We won. So that’s all that matters. I’ve been a little down these last couple of days.”
It was not the exterior changes the Rockets made of starting Josh Smith at power forward in place of Terrence Jones that made the biggest difference in this game.
It was more the interior of all the Rockets finding their resolve that turned the course of this game.
Bringing Jones off the bench seemed to inspire his play more so than Smith.
Jones had 12 points and five rebounds.
“It’s the playoffs,” Jones said. “I’m all about trying to get a ring at this point. Starting, anything like that, doesn’t matter to anyone.”
The Rockets hacking DeAndre Jordan worked better this time because their offensive rhythm stayed in sync, their defense stayed tight, and their improved play kept the Clippers from getting in any kind of groove.
The Rockets also made a defensive switch, moving Ariza over to defend J.J. Redick (nine points on three-for-12 shooting) and Jason Terry onto Chris Paul.
“On defense, we stayed focused,” Howard said. “We didn’t allow easy baskets tonight that happened the last couple of games.”
Follow Broderick Turner on Twitter @BA_Turner