The return of Chris Paul was the big story heading into Game 3 of the Western Conference Semifinals between the Los Angeles Clippers and Houston Rockets. After the final buzzer, most people had shifted their attention to the play of his backup.
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Reserve guard Austin Rivers, much-derided son of head coach Doc Rivers, scored 15 points in the third quarter — 13 of which came during a closing 18-0 run — on his way to a playoff career-high 25 to help key the Clippers' eventual 124-99 blowout victory. It was a surprising, very impressive performance that has to be seen to be believed:
The Clippers were up just 81-76 before Rivers knocked down a three-pointer to start the run with 3:15 remaining in the third. Yet it didn't end with the end-of-quarter buzzer — the Clippers also scored the first five points of the fourth for a 23-0 run that gave them a commanding 104-76 lead. A Rivers three provided a fitting bookend to the run with 10:57 left in regulation. By that point, he was playing so well that it didn't seem totally crazy for him to steal Rockets star James Harden's "stirring the pot" celebration:
The Rockets were in no real position to retaliate. The Clippers got the lead up to as many as 32 points before finishing with their 25-point victory, the second largest final margin in the West this postseason behind their own 27-point loss to the San Antonio Spurs in Game 3 of the first round.
Yet Rivers's big night was just one of many excellent individual performances on a terrific night for the Clippers. J.J. Redick bounced back from a rough Game 2 (12 points on 3-of-10 shooting) to go 11-of-14 from the field and 5-of-6 from beyond the arc for 31 points, besting his previous playoff career high of 22. For one of the only times so far this postseason, the Clippers did not need a dominant night from Blake Griffin (22 points on 10-of-20 FG with 14 rebounds).
Paul's return from a two-game layoff had a lot to do with the team-wide success. Although the all-world point guard did not appear close to full strength due to his pulled left hamstring, he mixed speeds with arguably greater success than he did in his phenomenal Game 7 vs. San Antonio. Paul started and put up four points (2-of-6 FG) and five assists in eight first-quarter minutes, proving that he could make an impact on the series even in a diminished state. The Clippers responded in kind with strong shooting (including 4-of-9 from beyond the arc) for 33 points and a nine-point lead after one.
The Rockets won the second quarter 33-31, but it's hard to say that the structure of the game shifted to their benefit. After shooting 64 free throws in their Game 2 win, Houston managed a respectable 15 freebies in the first half. However, they came from just two players (nine for the intentionally fouled Dwight Howard, six for forward Terrence Jones) with none for Harden, whose ability to get to the line is a strong indicator of the health of the offense. If not for three three-pointers from Jason Terry in the final 4:15 of the half, the Rockets might have gone into the break at a serious deficit.
That's largely because the Clippers offense was succeeding with little resistance. CP3 did little in the second quarter, but the hosts continued to hum with a great showing from Redick (16 points on seven shots) and a now-expected line from Griffin (13 points and eight rebounds). The balance lacking in Game 2 showed up early in Game 3, and the Clippers headed into the half with a 64-57 lead.
It looked for a time that the Rockets would take them to the wire. A 7-2 run (including Harden's first two free throws) over the first 2:24 of the second half brought Houston to within just three points and seemed to herald an improvement in ball movement and quick decision-making.
Unfortunately for them, whatever opportunity the Rockets had ended with the quarter-closing run and Rivers's unexpected dominance. The third-year pro has become a walking punchline throughout the past few months for several reasons — the fact that his father traded a lot to obtain him at the deadline, his propensity to take low-percentage shots, etc. — but he has played pretty well in these playoffs and proved essential to a huge Game 5 win at San Antonio in the first round. With Paul back, it's enough for Rivers to contribute instant offense and provide another scoring threat from the team's thin bench. Oh, and it doesn't hurt when he plays so well that an ailing CP3 only has to see the court for 23 minutes.
Houston got no such game-changing performance. While Harden finished with a solid line (25 points on 8-of-16 FG and 5-of-5 FT), those numbers belie the fact that he did not control the game's offensive flow like he did so many times throughout this regular season. When Harden hasn't dominated, the Rockets just haven't received the performances necessary to win games like this one against teams in near-championship form. The three-happy squad has yet to shoot better than 33 percent from deep in this series, and they have become very reliant on the play of Harden and Howard. And although it's nice that Jason Terry and Corey Brewer combined for 24 points on 10-of-18 shooting, that's just not enough in Game 3 of the conference semis. Fans are much more likely to remember Terry's fourth-quarter ejection for this boneheaded push of Blake Griffin:
Despite the Rockets' series-tying win on Wednesday, the Clippers have appeared in control of this series if only because they seem to be playing with the greater urgency and flair. It was remarkable that they did so in the first two games without Paul, but now that he's playing again they appear to have an obvious upper hand. This series is far from over, to be sure. Nevertheless, Sunday's Game 4 will be a gut check for the Rockets. If they don't show up, they may not be long for the postseason.
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