The only thing the Rockets had in their favor was time. They were down in the series, down in the game and almost down for the count. But they had most of the second half to do something about it.
Trailing the Clippers by 13 in the second half on Wednesday, the Rockets had shown few signs of the turnaround that would come. But they made a lineup change, sat James Harden and put together a second-half comeback that took them past the Clippers 115-109 to even their first round series at 1-1 heading to Friday’s Game 3.
“The bottom line is this series in nor for the weak of heart,” Rockets guard Jason Terry said. “The tougher team will win. Tonight, we came out in the second half a much tougher team. The first game and the first half of this game, they were the tougher team and so when you put this Rockets uniform on, you better come in here ready to fight.”
The Rockets went to a small lineup, with Trevor Ariza playing the power forward to provide spacing and a jolt of scoring along with more active front defense on Blake Griffin to turn the game around. The Rockets went from a 13-point second-half deficit to a 12-point lead with four minutes left, then made just enough free throws to hold on.
“We had to just change things up on Blake Griffin,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said of Griffin’s 26-point first half. “He was just backing us down, making shots. We were again too passive, just letting him have his way with us.
“We were trying to trap him, but couldn’t get there in time. When we went small, we were able to front him. (Ariza) did a nice job and Dwight (Howard) did a nice job putting a body on him, not letting him be quite as free as he was in the first half.”
That was just the beginning of the turnaround, only enough to give the Rockets a chance. Griffin went from making 11 of 14 shots in the first half to 2 of 8 in the second half, with Howard starting the second half on him before Terrence Jones and Ariza took turns. After allowing 41 second-quarter points, the most they had allowed all season, the Rockets held the Clippers to 44 in the second half.
“I just thought in the first half, he got what he wanted and the second half we made it a little more difficult for him,” Howard said. “He’s a terrific scorer, especially in the open court. We’ve just got to do a better job of fighting him for 48 minutes.”
But the Rockets offense was struggling as badly as the defense. The Clippers were trapping the ball out of Harden’s hands and flooding the lane when he drove. He could get 3s, but made just 1 of 6 in the first half as the Rockets made just 2 of 14.
When Harden began the second half committing two quick fouls, the second showing frustration as he shoved J.J. Redick, Harden went to the bench in the second minute of the half with five turnovers and just 3 field goals.
Griffin was on fire. Harden was on the bench. And the Rockets’ season seemed to have been on the line.
“We had them on the ropes,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said as he left the interview room podium. “We had them on the ropes.”
McHale, however, gambled with sitting Harden, got the defense he had wanted since the series began and got back in the game.
“A lot of times, I’ll let James play when he gets four,” McHale said. “But tonight, I just had a gut feeling it might be better to just sit him for a little bit. I don’t want him to get a charge or a push-off and get his fifth in some kind of way he was trying to make up for things. He was really amped up coming out of halftime. He was in my ear. ‘Let me play. Let me play. Let me play.’ Finally, he sat down, got a drink and relaxed a little bit.
“He came out and he had a real calm demeanor about him. He walked by me. I just said, you had a good rest. Let’s go to work.’ And he did a great job. Sometimes sitting over there calms you down.”
The lineup with Corey Brewer and Ariza seemed to turn up the Rockets defense. Jones became more active, blocking three shots and getting six of his eight rebounds in the second half. With the Rockets scrambling, the Clippers offense bogged down.
“I thought we got out of rhythm offensively,” Rivers said. “That’s when the game changed for us. I thought it was the first game we didn’t trust each other. The ball didn’t move and we got stuck trying to get the ball to Blake so much that we forget that there were guys on the other side of the floor. I thought that stretch was big.”
The Rockets ran through an 11-2 surge with Harden out and eventually cut the lead to two. When he returned , the Rockets were able to spread the floor with their small lineup and he was able to drive to draw fouls and get himself going.
“It’s always tough, especially having four fouls in the third quarter, but my teammates did a really good job of fighting and battling and keeping the game really close,” Harden said. “That allowed me in that fourth quarter to just go out there and just do what I’ve got to do.
“I knew my team was battling extremely hard and basically it was up to me to go out there and push us forward. They kept it a close game and they were battling. I sat out the entire third quarter so by the end of the third quarter, I was well rested.”
When the Rockets began the fourth quarter with a 10-3 run, they did not quite shoot the lights out, but as Ariza and Harden nailed 3s, one shot clock did break down, forcing the Rockets to use temporary clocks in the corners.
There was still a major challenge left, however. After Austin Rivers hit a 3, cutting the lead to 100-94, the Clippers returned to the hack-a-Rocket strategy, sending Howard to the line and soon to the bench with the lead shrinking again.
This time, however, McHale pulled Howard, returning Jones to his matchup on Griffin. The Rockets got just enough scoring that with four minutes left, Harden finished a drive and the Rockets had gone from a 13-point second-half deficit to a 12-point lead.
The Rockets struggled to close out the win, but when Harden put in another drive on his way to scoring 16 of his 32 points in the fourth quarter, the Rockets had 71 seconds left to protect a six-point lead, making just enough free throws to send the series to Los Angeles tied.
“Amazing,” Harden said. “We’ve been doing it all year, finding a way to win. We let Game 1 slip away and we didn’t want that feeling for Game 2. It’s going to be a tough two games, but we’ve got our mojo now.”