HOUSTON — Sometimes the adjustments are the kind you can see drawn out on the whiteboard.
After watching Blake Griffin use them like a piece of exercise equipment in the first half — something to help get in some cardio work and maybe break a little sweat — the Rockets did move some Xs and shifted some Os.
At one end of the floor, they used Trevor Ariza to front Griffin on defense and it thoroughly befuddled and bewildered the Los Angeles Clippers. At the other end, they used Ariza to help space things out and it opened up Houston’s offense.
Sometimes the adjustments are the kind that you only measure by sweat, hustle and floor burns.
There was L.A.’s Hedo Turkoglu going down onto the floor to scoop up a loose ball. And here was the Rockets’ Jason Terry flying in to wrap his arms, his hands and his entire body around the ball like some made headband-wearing octopus and to force a jump ball. Which the Rockets won.
“The bottom line is this series is not for the weak of heart. The tougher team will win. And Xs and Os, you can throw them out the window.”
– Houston Rockets guard Jason Terry
A while later off another jump ball, Terrence Jones stepped right in front of a tip by Griffin to scoop it up and slam it home.
“Those are huge plays and a lot of times nobody will write about that,” said Rockets coach Kevin McHale.
When they put the lock on a 115-109 Game 2 win that tied this Western Conference semifinal series at 1-1, it was the changes in attitude that finally gave the Rockets the latitude to think they were playing on the right emotional level.
“We needed this win. We need it bad,” said reserve swingman Corey Brewer. “We said at halftime, ‘Let’s stop playing like we don’t want to be here.’ So everybody got it together.”
“I just wanted to have that desperate desire to will a win,” Jones said.
“It’s the playoffs,” said center Dwight Howard. “So you know, win or go home.”
Trouble was, until the second half the Rockets hadn’t played with any sense of urgency or desperation. Maybe it was because they’d had such a creampuff 4-1 walkover the Dallas Mavericks in the first round after injury forced Dallas’ Chandler Parsons out of the series and point guard Rajon Rondo essentially quit on his Mavericks teammates. Maybe it was because the Rockets didn’t take seriously a Clippers team that limped into Game 1 without All-Star point guard Chris Paul, who had strained his left hamstring in the series-clinching Game 7 over the Spurs in the first round.
Whatever the reason, McHale had spent the previous 48 hours saying the same thing over and over, again and again. It just doesn’t matter what kind of game plan you have if you don’t play hard.
So they did.
Even when their alpha dog, James Harden, went to the bench early in the third quarter with his fourth personal foul. Even when Howard drew his fourth foul just several minutes later.
“Just play basketball like we did all year,” Brewer said. “We made a lot of runs all season when James goes to the bench. That’s what we’re supposed to do.”
Griffin shot 11-for-14 and scored 26 points in the first half, then 2-for-9 and eight points in the second half.
“We took the challenge against Blake,” Brewer said. “In the first half it was too easy. He was getting layups and anything he wanted. He was crossing over and nobody was contesting anything. But the second half we said we were going to stop him.”
Using a small lineup, the Rockets pushed the ball, pushed the pace and ultimately pushed the Clippers aside because they pushed themselves to play with the passion and intensity McHale was seeking.
“We made a lot of runs all season when James [Harden] goes to the bench. That’s what we’re supposed to do.”
– Houston Rockets guard Corey Brewer
For all the games they won this season — 56 — for all they have accomplished — Southwest Division title, No. 2 seed in the rugged West — the Rockets are still in some ways a team in search of an identity. Everybody knows they run and shoot and make the analytics crowd swoon. But nobody knows if they still can be more than the sum of their individual parts that it takes to be a real championship contender.
Howard still concerns himself more with perceptions that others have of him and his happy-go-lucky personality than he should. Though Harden is a willing and excellent passer when he is being double-teamed, there remain times when he facilitates too much and doesn’t make enough things happen.
Only three teams in NBA history have ever gone down 0-2 at home and come back to win a best-of-seven series. The last was 10 years ago when Dallas did it to the Rockets. Another one, back in 1994, won a championship. They, too, were Rockets.
Desperation can do many things and when they fell behind by 13 points the second straight game of the Clippers playing without Paul, it was a desperate time. It was a long, disjointed, frustrating game that lasted two hours and 58 minutes without overtime because the two teams shot 94 free throws.
“The bottom line is this series is not for the weak of heart,” Terry said. “The tougher team will win. And Xs and Os, you can throw them out the window. (Clippers coach) Doc Rivers is one of the best in the history of the game with Xs and Os, but this is for the strong-hearted.”
Sometimes the adjustments that matter are on the inside.