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Saturday March 17, 2012 7:02 PM

Shorthanded Rockets Get Clipped Again

Chris Paul rescues Clippers down the stretch, leads LA to 95-91 win

Jason Friedman
Rockets.com




HOUSTON - For 45 minutes, the shorthanded Houston Rockets did just about everything they could to make sure the Clippers’ freefall in the Western Conference continued. Players stepped up, put in heavy minutes, and undeniably left everything they had on the floor. Up 87-81 with less than three minutes remaining, it appeared as if that all-out effort in the face of adversity would be rewarded.

Then Chris Paul took over, took charge and delivered a painful dose of déjà vu while lifting his club to victory over Houston once again.

Yes, the Clippers’ all-world point guard broke the Rockets’ hearts once more, nearly two weeks after pulling off a strikingly similar feat the last time these two teams faced one another. Paul scored 12 points in the final 2:42 of the game, rallying Los Angeles to a 95-91 win – the Clippers’ third victory over Houston this season.

This loss, however, might have been the most painful of the three, given the rather unique circumstances surrounding the contest. Already at far less than full strength due to the absences of Kyle Lowry (bacterial infection) and Kevin Martin (shoulder), the Rockets were also without the services of Chandler Parsons (flu) and the newly-acquired Marcus Camby due to the fact former Rockets Jonny Flynn and Hasheem Thabeet – the players sent to Portland in the deadline day deal for Camby – had not yet reported to their new team. That left Houston with just nine players available for Saturday’s matinee affair, putting the Rockets at an obvious disadvantage against a struggling Clippers team that had lost five of its past seven games.

But instead of wilting, the Rockets responded with a performance that saw them lead throughout the vast majority of the contest. After falling behind 13-4 early, Houston emphatically answered with a 32-9 run that stretched well into the second quarter. The Rockets were firing on all cylinders, crisply moving the ball around for a bevy of good looks on offense, while consistently limiting Los Angeles to little but contested shots at the other end of the floor.

By halftime, Goran Dragic had already tied a career-high with 11 assists, Courtney Lee and Chase Budinger had 13 points apiece, and the Rockets were the proud owners of an eight-point edge. Perhaps the most telling number at that point, however, was the fact Paul, the unquestioned catalyst of the Clippers’ two previous wins over Houston, had as many turnovers (2) as he did points by the break. The Rockets had successfully stymied the Clippers and had them on the ropes. The question going forward was whether or not they would be able to sustain that sort of effort in the second half despite being so severely undermanned.

The early returns in the third quarter were not promising. Los Angeles began to fully assert its size advantage, repeatedly burning the Rockets on the offensive glass to earn precious second-chance opportunities. Paul and Blake Griffin began to find the holes in Houston’s previously difficult-to-penetrate defense. And when Mo Williams drilled a 3-pointer with four seconds left in the frame, the Clippers had finally regained the lead they had not held since the early moments of the first quarter.

Resilient as ever, however, the Rockets stormed back once more in the final period. Lee, Dragic and Budinger continued to hit big shots, as Houston wasted little time reclaiming the lead. And when Patrick Patterson (10 points in the fourth quarter, 14 overall) connected from 11-feet with 2:57 to go to give the Rockets an 87-81 edge, it looked as if Houston was on its way to a third consecutive victory.

But Chris Paul simply wouldn’t allow it. Beginning with a midrange jumper at the 2:42 mark, Paul orchestrated the Clippers’ offense to points – 12 of which he scored himself – on each of the club’s final seven possessions to rescue his team and help them escape with the win. His final numbers: 23 points, 5 assists and 5 steals – six thefts in all if one accounts for the way he singlehandedly snatched victory right out of the Rockets’ hands.

“They made adjustments on how we were guarding them,” said Lee, who finished the game with a season-high 25 points. “They ran a lot of high pick-and-rolls. Chris Paul was able to get in the paint and orchestrate their offense. We have to continue to do a better job and stick to what was working for us and continue to get better on the defensive end on that pick-and-roll coverage.”

“We had the lead at half. We have to continue to do the things that were working for us. We can’t have those little mistakes. In the third quarter we let them come all the way back, especially in the first five minutes. So we have to continue to work.”

And 1s: Prior to Saturday's game, Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey announced that the team has signed guard Courtney Fortson of the D-League L.A. Defenders to a 10-day contract. Forton saw one minute of action Saturday, scoring no points and turning the ball over twice.

This marks Fortson’s second GATORADE Call-Up of the season. He also played four games with the L.A. Clippers this season, averaging 4.3 points, 2.0 rebounds and 1.3 assists in 11.2 minutes per game.

Fortson (5-11, 185, Arkansas) owns career averages of 14.3 points, 5.0 assists and 3.7 rebounds in 35 D-League games (15 starts) with the Reno Bighorns (2010-11) and L.A. Defenders (2011-12). In 29 games (14 starts) this season with the Defenders, Fortson holds averages of 17.0 points, 5.9 assists, 4.3 boards and 2.14 steals. Fortson currently ranks tied for 14th in the league in scoring, sixth in assists and second in steals.

Called up by the Clippers on Jan. 16, 2012, Fortson scored a career-high 13 points (5-10 FG) at Utah (1/17/12). He was waived by the Clippers on Jan. 27. In addition to the NBA, Fortson played internationally with Romanian First Division team Steaua Turabo. In college, Fortson averaged 17.9 points, 5.7 assists and 5.2 rebounds as a sophomore at Arkansas. He was also named to the All-SEC Freshman Team.

QUOTES

KEVIN MCHALE

RE: Overall thoughts on tonight’s game: “We could have done a better job. [Chris Paul] did a nice job and we couldn’t contain him. The last one, he caught us looking for a pick and he drove down the middle and got a layup. He was very aggressive down the stretch. We had a lot of chances, we just needed a rebound there in that stretch. The game could have gone our way, but we just didn’t get it.”

RE: Defensive rebounding: “They beat us up on the boards. We didn’t get the job done defensively and it cost us the game. They got two offensive rebounds in the last couple of minutes. If we had gotten either one of those, the game probably would have gone our way.”

CHASE BUDINGER

RE: Team’s fourth quarter: “It was definitely a winnable game for us down the stretch. Our main thing was that we couldn’t get stops in that last three minutes.”

RE: Effect of Chris Paul down the stretch: “A lot to do with it is Chris [Paul]. He was definitely creating, getting to the free throw line and we really just didn’t have an answer for him getting out of that free throw line.”

COURTNEY LEE

RE: Team’s fourth quarter: “They made adjustments on how we were guarding them. They ran a lot of high pick-and-rolls. Chris Paul was able to get in the paint and orchestrate their offense. We have to continue to do a better job and stick to what was working for us and continue to get better on the defensive end on that pick-and-roll coverage.”

RE: Adjustments to make tomorrow night vs. Phoenix: “We had the lead at half. We have to continue to do the things that were working for us. We can’t have those little mistakes. In the third quarter we let them come all the way back, especially in the first five minutes. So we have to continue to work.”

CLIPPERS HEAD COACH VINNY DEL NEGRO

RE: Today’s win: “It was a grind out win for us tonight. We had to make plays down the stretch and we didn’t shoot the ball particularly well which put a lot of pressure on us. Chris [Paul] made some big plays down the stretch. We didn’t turn it over a lot in the second half which was good. We turned it over too much and struggled to shoot the basketball today. It was a good solid win for us. Houston has been playing well, they move the ball well, Courtney Lee was difficult, [Chase] Budinger hit some shots, and [Patrick] Patterson hurt us down the stretch a little bit but it is a grind out win and we will take it.”

RE: What he liked about today’s win: “I just thought we stayed with the game plan. We just kept grinding it out, it wasn’t easy. We did do a good job with not turning it over and making plays when we had to.”

RE: Staying with their defensive responsibilities: “I thought at times we did tonight. I thought they hit a couple good shots. Patrick Patterson made a couple tough shots, I thought Courtney Lee made a few tough shots; [Goran] Dragic has been playing pretty well and penetrated our defense pretty well. I thought our bigs did a better job getting up in the second half. But it came down to us getting a few stops at the end when we needed to and then converting Chris [Paul] at the free throw line.”

RE: Chris Paul taking over the game: “That is what star players in the league do. We tried to run some high pick and roll stuff and tried to space the court out as much as possible. We got into the penalty which makes it harder to guard especially at the end. Then we got a stop at the end of the last minute or so and we had some time-outs but we had a transition opportunity pushed it and got the lay-up. I felt like with him on the break you have to get him the ball to make the play and he made it today.”

DEANDRE JORDAN

RE: Addition of Nick Young: “Nick [Young] is going to be great for us. He’s definitely a great shooter and scorer. He’ll definitely help us open up the floor, and allow us to have another threat on the floor. I think Nick [Young] is going to come out and do great things for our team. It’s not going to take him that long to get acclimated. Hopefully we can get him out on the floor as soon as possible.”

RE: Chris Paul’s 4th quarter play: “CP [Chris Paul] is great down the stretch and throughout the whole game. For those critical points in the game he’s always going to get us a bucket or make a huge play for us.”

BLAKE GRIFFIN

RE: Difference Maker: “Honestly, down the stretch, we got some stops. CP [Chris Paul] hit some big shots and free throws, and we finished out. That was the main difference. We still have to be better, and we still can be better.”

RE: Chauncey returning to team: “It’s great. He’s a big part of this team, even if he’s hurt and on the bench. We can still learn from him and use his wisdom and experience.”

RE: Progress after team meeting: “It’s not going to happen overnight. Just because we had a meeting doesn’t mean we’re going to come out and be a completely different team. I felt like there was progress made, but we still have to work on that and continue to expand as well.”

CHRIS PAUL

RE: Overall Thoughts on Tonight’s Game: “We got stops when we needed to. We really showed what we are like when we push the tempo. That’s how it was. We got stops and we got out in transition. We’re really hard to defend when we get like that because it gets Blake [Griffin] on the move and we get a chance to find our shooters. That’s the way we need to play.”

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