HOUSTON -- Having spent a considerable portion of his pregame conference with the media dismissing the notion of teams needing to establish an identity this early in the season, Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers seemed particularly pleased that his team used defense -- his personal calling card -- as the impetus for their second-half comeback.
The Clippers shackled the high-scoring Houston Rockets during one critical stretch late in the third quarter and built upon that momentum in the fourth for a 107-94 victory on Saturday night at Toyota Center.
By holding the Rockets (4-3) scoreless in the final 5:02 of the third quarter, the Clippers (4-3) erased a 71-60 deficit and wrangled control of the game. Houston ended the drought when forward Dwight Howard converted an offensive rebound into a second-chance basket with 10:12 left, but by that stage the Clippers had worked an 18-point turnaround.
"Your defense won the game for you. That's what won the game," Rivers said. "The whole second half (39) points (allowed) against a terrific offensive team, and we had all kinds of strange lineups with foul trouble."
After closing the third quarter with a tip-in at the buzzer before adding a three-point play early in the fourth, Clippers guard Jamal Crawford drilled two 3-pointers that kept the Rockets at arm's length.
Crawford finished with 16 points off the bench, including an open trey with 3:45 remaining to lift the Clippers (4-3) to a 95-85 lead. He complemented strong performances from Clippers forward Blake Griffin (22 points) and guard Chris Paul (14 points and 13 assists).
Forward Chandler Parsons led the Rockets (4-3) with 23 points and eight rebounds, and Howard added 21 points and eight rebounds. But once they lost the lead, the Rockets seemingly lost their rhythm, producing nearly as many second-half turnovers (11) as field goals (13).
"We missed some shots and we started doubting it and we stopped taking some shots that we needed to take," Rockets coach Kevin McHale said. "Then we got a lot of turnovers and then we just got really passive. We just got nothing going from that point on."
The Clippers took advantage of another sluggish Houston start, grabbing an 18-8 lead before the Rockets went small to positive results.
With forward Omri Casspi replacing center Omer Asik, the Rockets' offense caught fire and closed the first quarter with an 18-4 run. Howard was integral to that rally with several rim assaults sandwiched around a Casspi 3-pointer, producing 10 first-quarter points on 4-of-6 shooting from the field.
The Rockets' eruption continued in the second quarter with guard Patrick Beverley (19 points plus a career-high four steals) providing the spark. Beverley had nine points in the quarter and seemed to take his matchup with Paul personally, engaging in several feisty exchanges, something the Rockets lacked when Beverley was injured while Paul torched Houston last weekend during their matchup in Los Angeles.
But momentum swung when Beverley picked up his fourth foul and exited with 6:16 left in the third and the Rockets leading 67-57. The Clippers' ratcheted up the aggression and forced five turnovers after Beverley departed, including four by his replacement, Jeremy Lin.
Both teams noticed a shift in attitudes during the Clippers' 18-0 run. How those attitudes influenced the result was a matter of perspective.
"We had to really battle through that, battle through adversity," Lin said. "When times get tough, we have to get closer and not grow further apart. That's all part of the process, the building process."
Paul said, "We showed up to the fight late, which we can't do. They were a little bit grittier, a little bit scrappier than us. Then we finally said enough is enough and found a way to come out with the win."
NOTES: After initially expressing concern over his ability to play through a bothersome left foot bruise, Rockets G James Harden took his customary place in the starting lineup. ... The Clippers have struggled with consistency on offense after a three-game winning streak in which they averaged 124.3 points per game with a 90-point outing in a loss to Orlando on Wednesday. When the Clippers are good offensively, they're brilliant. But is that proficiency sustainable? "I don't know if 130 is sustainable, so no would be the answer," Rivers said. "But I do think this team has an ability to explode offensively, there's no doubt about that." ... Clippers F Jared Dudley continues to play through right knee tendinitis, but the situation isn't ideal. "He's good to go, he's just not healthy," Rivers said of Dudley.