For the first time since the 1998 season, we won’t see Tim Duncan, Dwyane Wade or Kobe Bryant participating in the NBA Finals, and that’s due in large part to Chris Paul’s late-game heroics in Game 7 against San Antonio. His game-winning shot with just one second left propelled the Clippers to a second-round bout with the Houston Rockets, who handled the Dallas Mavericks with relative ease in the first round.
Paul has received excoriation for much of his career because of his postseason “woes.” In fact, he averages 20.9 points, 9.5 assists and 4.8 rebounds in the playoffs over his career, so this isn’t why he gets scrutinized. His teams have never gone past the conference semifinals, and since he has been the best player on said teams, he has often, unfairly, received the most criticism for failing to advance.
When reports surfaced that Paul would be in street clothes for Game 1, many, including myself, believed that the Rockets would have no trouble jumping out to a 1-0 series lead. The belief was that the Clippers, devoid of roster depth to begin with, wouldn’t be able to overcome this significant loss. James Harden, after being shunned of his first MVP award, would come out and prove to the world that he was worthy of such high praise and adulation. Josh Smith, who came into this series as Houston’s second leading scorer, would continue to play exceptionally well. Dwight Howard would continue to show everyone that he’s not to be forgotten when mentioning the best centers in the game. These were many of the thoughts associated with why the Rockets were picked to win this game on their home court.
Ultimately, it didn’t come to fruition, as Houston struggled and blew a prime opportunity with Paul sidelined. The Rockets went up by 13 points in the first half, only to mess around and let the Clippers back in it. Los Angeles seized control of the game in the second half, and after a 5-0 run for Houston cut a six-point deficit to one, the Clippers responded with 12 straight points of their own and didn’t look back after that.
Harden had 20 points and 12 assists, but he struggled taking care of the ball to the tune of nine turnovers. Smith and Corey Brewer shot a combined 6-of-24 and didn’t provide much production off the bench.
The Rockets failed to take advantage of their opponent being devoid of their floor general and playmaker. Paul is indeed the catalyst for the Clippers, something he has proven all year and especially in their last series against the Spurs. Against the defending champs, he scored 22.7 points per game on 51 percent shooting. He’s currently dealing with a hamstring issue, but his teammates overcame that with a complete team effort and bought him some more time to heal up.
Jamal Crawford and Matt Barnes stepped up in a huge way, scoring 21 and 20 points, respectively. Austin Rivers, son of the head coach, got the start and played well, tallying 17 points and three assists.
But the star of the night was Blake Griffin. Griffin notched his second straight triple double and third of the postseason with 26 points, 14 rebounds and 13 assists. His facilitating on the offensive end drew high praise from Barnes, who said that he reminded him of Tom Brady with the way he was able to pick apart the Rockets’ defense.
With Game 2 set to take place on Wednesday night, Los Angeles has a chance to take a 2-0 lead before returning home for Games 3 and 4. It’ll be interesting to see if Doc Rivers and the training staff elect to sit Paul again in an effort to give him more time to heal. They’ve already done their job by going into Houston and stealing a game. You don’t want to concede any games, but Paul’s health will be the difference maker going forward, especially if they have aspirations of winning their first title.
If Paul doesn’t play in Game 2 (he’s currently doubtful) and the Clippers manage to go back to Los Angeles with a 2-0 lead and its point guard significantly healthier, then Houston, we have a problem. Heck, blowing Game 1 is a big enough problem already.