They say an NBA playoff series doesn't really start until the road team wins a game. So if that's the case, then the Clippers-Rockets series got an early start on Monday night this week when the Clippers won Game 1 here in Houston. And when James Harden went out with his fourth foul with 10:32 to go in the third quarter on Wednesday night in Game 2, the series was dangerously close to getting an early finish.
Literally, two seconds after Harden went out, Blake Griffin scored his 27th and 28th points of the night, putting the Rockets down 69-56. That was the moment, the moment that every team that aspires to win an NBA title (which last I checked, flawed as they are, the Rockets still do) faces at some point along the way during that imperfect journey.
The realization that "Holy shit, this thing could end right here."
All the maneuvering, all the trades, all the sales pitches to get Dwight Howard and Josh Smith to come here, moves that honestly date back to before James Harden arrived in 2012 — they were all in danger of going up in a meek plume of smoke on Wednesday night when Harden headed to the bench and the Clippers continued to gleefully punch the Rockets in the mouth and smear the Rockets' blood on their own face like some sort of basketball psychopath.
And then, in the ultimate irony, with their MVP candidate and offensive everything on the bench, the Rockets found their way. Guys who were in danger of being underachieving footnotes to another disappointing postseason stepped up. Trevor Ariza, one of a couple Rockets who knows what the entire path of an NBA champion feels like, gets fouled on a three pointer. He makes all three free throws. It's down to a ten point lead.
Terrence Jones, whose timidity around the rim will continue to be a problem in this series (but oh well, it is what it is), makes a dunk. The lead is down to eight. A couple minutes later, Jason Terry, the other Rocket who's been all the way to the playoff finish line, knocks down a jumper. It's a six point lead.
Terrence Jones gets a steal, gets fouled at the other end, and knocks down two free throws. It's a four point lead.
It must be mentioned as well that amidst this comeback, with 7:22 to go, Dwight Howard picked up his fourth personal foul. So now all of a sudden, your Big Two, Harden and Howard, are both in potentially catastrophic foul trouble. At that point in the game, you can't have them both on the bench. You just can't. Not with the roll that unit was on in slicing the Clippers lead well into single digits.
That moment began a crucial three minute stretch of basketball that won't be necessarily career defining for Kevin McHale and Dwight Howard, but if the Rockets go on to do anything remarkable this postseason and we go back and wonder why, the basketball forensics team should locate this stretch and say "Yep, that mattered."
At that point, McHale left Dwight n the game, four fouls and all, a non-formulaic, ballsy thing to do. It was a quietly desperate move that a head coach who himself has been on the floor in these situations just gets. Even better, Howard justified his coach's confidence. For the next few critical minutes, Dwight remained active on defense, blocking a shot and getting a steal, and quite frankly, merely existing on the floor when the Rockets needed a presence to keep Blake Griffin from continuing his one-man crane kick to the Rockets' face that he had executed in the first half.
Dwight got the Rockets to the four minute mark before taking a breather, Doc Rivers for some reason decided to begin hacking Josh Smith with the Rockets having no real offensive catalyst on the floor, and that bridged the gap to the 2:08 mark of the third quarter.
At that point, James Harden came back.
And I don't mean James Harden merely reentered the game, I mean James Harden, MVP candidate, reentered the series, reentered our basketball lives. His entire playbook of unstoppable drives, step back jumpers, and crossover dribbles got dusted off, and vintage Harden took over for the next fourteen minutes.
In a crucial run that would ultimately be the most important of the game, the first 3:30 of the fourth quarter, the Rockets would outscore the Clippers 15-4, taking an 85-83 deficit and turning it into a 98-89 lead, capped by a Harden step back three pointer. All 15 points during that run would be scored by Harden (8) and Ariza (7), whose 15 points all seem to come at a time that mattered, and whose defense in the second half, fronting Griffin, was the key at that end of the floor.
From there, the Rockets did what good teams do — they made shots when they needed to, they defended, and they made free throws down the stretch. Even Howard, who was a wretched 8-21 from the line, swished his two most important foul shots to give the Rockets a six point lead with 16 seconds to go.
Ultimately, the Rockets would hang on to win 115-109, and breathe a sigh of relief that it will only take a split in Los Angeles to regain control of the home court in the series, a difficult but doable task.
To win an NBA title, you have to win 16 games. That's the immutable, mathematical fact. But qualitatively, you need to win a game like Wednesday night's game somewhere along the way, a game where the basketball gods test your will, where it's more about surviving the Hunger Games than it is executing a game plan.
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There's no page in Kevin McHale's figurative playbook that tells him how to deal with his two best players having four fouls with seven minutes to go in the third quarter, how to deal with his MVP candidate sitting on the bench with his team down 13, how to deal with his team shooting less than 20 percent from three point range. The only way to deal with it is to go play, to punch back.
I don't know how different this series will look if and when Chris Paul returns. Honestly, the normalcy of having the Clippers at full strength may pull the Rockets out of this funk of mental lapses we've seen through two games. I have no idea, none of us do. What I do know is that on Wednesday night, the Clippers, Blake Griffin, and the basketball gods all took turns punching the Rockets in the face.
Finally, they punched back.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast.