There was something about the Clippers’ doomed playoff series against the Houston Rockets that they wanted to recapture.
Chris Paul was out because of an injury, so they plugged Austin Rivers in at starting point guard. That part felt a lot like the opener of the Western Conference semifinals last spring, which the Clippers won in a stunner.
The similarities ended there Saturday night at Staples Center.
Rivers struggled and the Clippers seemed out of sorts without their All-Star point guard, suffering a 109-105 loss to the Rockets that was also largely attributable to the play of James Harden.
Houston’s shooting guard was strong from start to finish, scoring 18 points in the first quarter and never slowing down on the way to a season-high 46 that included the go-ahead free throws with 32 seconds left.
Clippers forward Blake Griffin then missed a contested layup and a tipin as Houston’s Dwight Howard touched the ball near the rim. The ball went out of bounds to the Rockets and Ty Lawson made two free throws with 13 seconds left to give his team a four-point cushion and hand the Clippers (4-2) a second consecutive defeat.
Clippers Coach Doc Rivers said the play involving Howard should have been called goaltending.
“I just thought it was a very clear one to call, but that’s not why we lost the game,” Rivers said. “I didn’t think we played very well and I didn’t think we had a great sense of urgency.”
Griffin had valiantly rallied the Clippers in the final minutes from what had been a 10-point deficit, splitting two defenders with his dribble for a one-handed dunk and then spinning around Trevor Ariza for a layup. His two free throws with 64 seconds left pulled the Clippers to within 105-102.
The Clippers got the ball back after Harden bowled over J.J. Redick, and Griffin found Paul Pierce in the corner for the three-pointer that tied the score with 40 seconds left.
Harden made two free throws before Griffin’s misses near the rim. Griffin finished with 35 points, 11 rebounds and five assists.
Not much seemed to go the Clippers’ way on a night they even lost a battle of intentional fouls in the fourth quarter, the Rockets’ Clint Capela and Howard combining to make seven of eight free throws in that situation and the Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan missing four of six attempts.
Paul sat out because of a strained right groin he sustained late in the Clippers’ game against the Golden State Warriors on Wednesday. His injury was not expected to keep him out for an extended period, meaning he could return Monday when the Clippers play the Memphis Grizzlies.
Austin Rivers, who sparked the Clippers to victories in Games 1 and 3 of their seven-game playoff series against the Rockets, said he wouldn’t change his approach starting as opposed to coming off the bench.
He came out slowly, missing five of his first six shots and twice fouling Harden on baskets that led to three-point plays.
Rivers finished with 10 points on four-for-12 shooting and one assist.
“That’s a game we’ve gotta win,” Austin Rivers said. “Chris, no Chris, we should win.”
Paul had worked out at the Clippers’ morning shootaround and seemed determined to help his team, his groin and team trainer Jasen Powell willing.
“If I can play,” said Paul, who appeared in all 82 regular-season games last season for the first time in his career, “I guarantee you I’m playing.”
Alas, he appeared on the Clippers’ bench at game time wearing a dark suit with a velour collar, matching his teammates in their all-black alternate jerseys.
Houston wasn’t at full strength either. The Rockets were missing guard Patrick Beverley (concussion), forward Terrence Jones (eye laceration) and forward-center Donatas Motiejunas (back pain), necessitating some small lineups.
They worked out just fine as the Clippers couldn’t conjure an answer in the closing minutes.
Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch