First, Chris Paul was starkly honest.
“I’ve been here before, 3-1,” he said during a postgame walk-off interview with TNT on Sunday after the Houston Rockets defeated the Utah Jazz to take a 3-1 lead in the NBA Western Conference semifinals. “[Stuff] went bad real quick.”
Then, he went into the locker room with his Rockets teammates. Some of them remember the series he referenced; they were the ones who caused his pain. They celebrated Paul’s 33rd birthday with cake, bits of which wound up smeared on the locker room floor and stuck to the side of one player’s locker.
Post-birthday celebration, with time to compose his thoughts, Paul shrugged off the memory.
“James was fouling, they was cheating,” Paul said, motioning toward James Harden, now a teammate. “I don’t remember. I don’t remember. I got that out of my brain. That’s out.”
The last time Paul had a 3-1 lead in the second round of the playoffs, he was a member of a promising Clippers team that seemed on its way to its first trip to the Western Conference finals. It would have been Paul’s first trip too.
His slip after Sunday’s game revealed that the 2015 series is at least on Paul’s mind. But that it happened at the hands of the Rockets, many of whom still play for the team, could be what prevents something like that from befalling Paul’s team again.
From inside their cake-spattered locker room came words of confidence, focus and a firm belief that there is no chance the Rockets will squander this 3-1 lead.
“Oh for sure,” Rockets guard Eric Gordon said, when asked if Paul had talked about that semifinal series. “I don’t know if he’s been on a team like this though. This is a very talented team that’s very hungry. We’re a very hungry and desperate team now.”
The Clippers won Game 4 to take a commanding series lead even though DeAndre Jordan got hacked starting in the first quarter and missed 20 free throws. After the game, he spoke about winning nine more games.
Magic Johnson said on Twitter that he thought the Clippers could win the championship.
Then-Rockets coach Kevin McHale said, “They beat the hell out of us.”
The Clippers looked so dominant that the series seemed all but over. Only eight times previously had an NBA team recovered from a 3-1 deficit to win a seven-game series. The most recent had been in the first round of the 2006 playoffs, when the Phoenix Suns stormed back from a 3-1 deficit to eliminate the Lakers.
Self-assurance beamed from the Clippers organization. But the Rockets didn’t lack swagger either.
“We stayed confident,” said Rockets forward Trevor Ariza, who was also a member of the team in 2015. “We didn’t worry about what the score was or what we were down, we just took it one game at a time.”
The Rockets won Game 5 by 21 points, fueled by a triple-double from Harden. They won Game 6 at Staples Center by 12. Back in Houston for Game 7, they completed the comeback by winning 113-100.
Rockets swingman Gerald Green, speaking of Paul, said Sunday night in Utah, “Those type of things you don’t want to remember about; You want to keep a positive mindset so you can keep it moving forward.
“He’s on a totally different team, totally different atmosphere, surrounding himself with more talent. … The way he’s able to lead us on and off the court is remarkable.”
They added Paul and created their own super team with two of the best guards in the league fitting seamlessly together. This season, they soared to the best record in the NBA, despite plenty of doubters.
They are, after all, not the Warriors.
That’s precisely what gives the Rockets the desperation of which Gordon spoke.
“We have something to prove,” Gordon said. “Even though we ended up the No. 1 seed, we’ve got a lot of things to prove. We want to win it all.”
Said Paul: “We’re not satisfied just being up 3-1. … We didn’t come this far just to be 3-1 in the semifinals.”
This year, Paul’s team is seeded No. 1 and expected to win handily. His teammates don’t need him to tell them how important this is. In fact, they don’t want him to think back to what befell his Clippers three years ago.
Paul was asked Sunday if he took any lessons or warnings from that Clippers-Rockets series. Instead of answering, he laughed.
Harden answered for him.
“He doesn’t even need to think about that, honestly,” Harden said. “We’ve got a game on Tuesday, and we’re going to do whatever it takes to close it out. I don’t know what he’s thinking, but I know he’s not thinking that. As a team, we’re just playing for each other, and we’re going to go out and play our butts off and win the game.”
Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli