The Houston Rockets defeated the Los Angeles Clippers 115-109 Wednesday night, finally realizing their season was on the line and playing like it.
James Harden scored 32 points and had 7 assists -- he would have had a double-double had the Rockets hit any open outside shots -- Dwight Howard had 24 points, 16 rebounds and 4 blocks and the Rockets got enough contribution from Trevor Ariza (defensively) and Terrence Jones on both ends to get the win.
There will be time to parse the disastrous second quarter, but the Rockets woke up in the second half. Jason Terry and Howard pleaded with the Toyota Center crowd to cheer -- like, at all -- and once they started to, the Rockets started to look like themselves. Corey Brewer made some hustle plays, the Beard started to attack more and everything worked out in the end.
Here are three things I noticed:
Kevin McHale finally made an adjustment
In the second half, McHale finally told the Rockets to throw double-teams at Blake Griffin. When Griffin had it far from the basket, the Rockets threw a man at him from across the court. Jordan remained covered, so Blake was forced to pass it out to one of the Clippers' vastly inferior perimeter options. This was the difference in the second half to the Clippers' shooting. Blake couldn't miss in the first half, ergo, you shouldn't let him shoot in the second.
This adjustment came far too late, but at least it came. It was basically the second time in two years that a power forward carved up the Rockets and McHale -- a power forward who used to carve up teams himself -- took six full quarters to recognize it was happening. Once Blake was covered, the Rockets could string together some stops and some fast-break opportunities. That gave Harden the chance to attack and draw fouls, and get his head back in the ballgame.
Later in the fourth quarter, McHale threw another wrinkle: Trevor Ariza on Griffin, playing heavy ball-denail defense. With DeAndre Jordan on the bench, there was no one for Griffin to throw lobs to, and no other threat near the basket. These two adjustments might have saved the Rockets' season.
Jason Terry and Pablo Prigioni are not the problem
It seems like much of the conversation around what the Rockets' weaknesses would before this series started revolved around these two. And yes, they leave a lot to be desired defensively. So does Terrence Jones. The 37-year-olds are the Rockets' best three-point shooters, and it there are stretches where only they and Dwight Howard don't like deers in headlights.
They're not terrific on-ball defenders, but McHale stuck both of them on J.J. Redick and Austin Rivers, and they did a great job. Terry beat Hedo Turkoglu for a jump ball, did his best to pump up the crowd (at a moment when they really needed it). It may sound like a cliché, but they both know how to play and know how to make plays. Prigioni's aggressive defense led to a few sloppy fouls, but also some turnovers. It puts pressure on an offense to be more careful with every pass.
Terry's pump fake was on point, and he used it to get to the paint, stop and let his defender crash into his back. He got at least four free throws on this move, and made the shot the next time when his defender didn't fall for it. He missed both his three-pointers and only had one assist, but he played great.
Someone woke James Harden up
Harden was monumental down the stretch, forcing the issue, getting fouled, attacking the basket and knocking down outside shots. He did everything he hadn't done for the first 60 minutes of action in this series. Before the fourth quarter, he really looked lost on the court. Reggie Miller said he "looked shell-shockied" and he was right.
Harden said after the game he was playing poorly and just needed to get more aggressive. Luckily he did, finally hit an outside shot, and he was automatic from the free throw line. It was just the second game of the playoffs in which he scored more than 30 points, after leading the NBA in 30-point games this season. If he can carry this over in his hometown, everything about this series will change.
And will Chris Paul likely coming back in Game 3, everything will change. Second half Harden is the Rockets' only hope.