The Rockets needed a win to prolong their season, but they needed more. They needed a revival, to rebuild the determination and resolve that had failed them in Los Angeles. They needed to look in the mirror and recognize the team looking back at them.
It took four games of their playoff series against the Los Angeles Clippers, including two humbling blowout defeats that pushed them to the brink of elimination, but with the season on the line, the Rockets finally played their way.
They pushed the pace and attacked the rim, getting everything they needed, including a 124-103 blowout of the Los Angeles Clippers to send the series back to Staples Center for Game 6 on Thursday with the Clippers leading, 3-2, but the Rockets feeling as if they are back in more ways than on the scoreboard.
“That’s what it all about,” said Rockets guard/forward Corey Brewer, who scored nine fourth-quarter points to help close out the win. “It’s about us playing our style of basketball. We tried playing their style of basketball, slowed it down a little bit. But when we’re playing at a high pace, fast, we’re tough to beat.”
More than that, they were just tough as they were not in the losses in Los Angeles, with the resolve to withstand the Clippers’ runs and the determination for James Harden to have his best all-around game of the series while battling a cold that had him coughing and gasping throughout the game.
“I’m all right,” Harden said. “We won the game. That’s all that matters.
“I’ve just been feeling a little down these last couple games. I’ll be all right.”
Harden’s determination, however, was about more than playing through that difficulty. He was more determined in looking for his shot, especially in the lane to draw fouls and finish inside.
“We weren’t aggressive enough the first four games,” Harden said. “We were timid. They have really good bigs. We made a conscious effort to go into attack mode.”
Rockets coach Kevin McHale tweaked his rotation a bit to play Harden for shorter stints, having him come out in the first quarter when Dwight Howard usually does. But when Harden returned, he took over, scoring 14 second-quarter points to take the Rockets to a 15-point lead. He still played 43 minutes, getting his first playoff triple double with a career playoff high 11 rebounds and 10 assists.
“James started warming into the game,” McHale said. He was moving the ball. We attacked. Finally, we got to the basket. We got points in the paint and tried to attack and played a little bit more like we tried to play the entire year.”
“We play better when we play inside-out, attack downhill. We’re one of the best teams at getting points in the paint and we just weren’t doing it.”
When he knocked down a corner 3 with 2:02 left, he had 26 points, the Rockets had a 21-point lead and Harden could finally head to the locker room early.
“He wasn’t feeling well all day,” McHale said. “He had a hell of a game. He had an IV this afternoon and he played a great game for us and we needed it.”
Still, the Rockets could not call the lopsided win easy. With the Clippers go inside to Blake Griffin through the third quarter, they cut a 22-point lead to 13. When the Rockets began the fourth quarter double-teaming Griffin, the Clippers had four-consecutive wide-open looks, missing them all and never coming closer than 12 points.
The Rockets responded with Clint Capela rolling to a dunk, Smith hitting a mid-range jumper and then pulling up on a break to nail a transition 3 that pushed the lead back to 19. None of that might be how the Rockets draw it up, but it steadied them. After Harden put in a step-back jumper, Jason Terry hit a 3-pointer and Capela finished on a break to give the Rockets a 20-point lead with 6 ½ minutes remaining.
All that was left to do was handle the hack-a-Rocket portion of the evening.
Howard had just returned to the game, but after he missed two free throws, McHale sat Howard and Smith down the stretch. The Clippers tried fouling Brewer instead, but after he made 3 of 4 free throws, he finished inside twice as the Rockets could not in Los Angeles and the rout was on to stay.
“You know,” McHale said, “that’s how we have to play.”