LOS ANGELES – Only one member of the Houston Rockets would admit hoping to face the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs after the visiting team's 135-103 defeat on Wednesday night. at the Staples Center.
For Austin Rivers, it's purely personal reasons, the opportunity to claim the bragging rights of the family and to beat the team that changed it last summer. Chris Paul played it timidly, but Rivers knows that he feels the same.
"Absolutely, you can see him tonight in the way he played," Rivers told ESPN after Paul burned the Clippers by 27 points and seven badists, a highlight by a 60-foot hitter to finish the third quarter. "You play in your old team, that's what you do, it would make it even more competitive, and they're a good team, they would attack us, because a lot of their guys played here, so it would be fun." series."
The rest of the rockets? They do not really care who comes to Toyota Center to open the playoffs next weekend.
It is likely that the Clippers are in a confrontation between the third and sixth seeds, a probability that increased with the result of Wednesday's showdown, as well as the victories of the Denver Nuggets in second place and the Utah Jazz in fifth place. If that is the case, the Rockets will consider this blowout victory irrelevant.
"You really can not make too many statements," Paul said scornfully, noting that the Clippers are a much tougher team with Pat Beverley. The pit bull guard, which was part of the package that the Rockets delivered to make Paul co-star with James Harden, sat on Wednesday night with a hip injury.
A statement the Rockets will make with confidence: they are capable of beating anyone if they continue to roll as they have recently.
"If we're doing what we're supposed to do, nobody can beat us," forward PJ Tucker told ESPN. "Anybody, it does not matter … If we play at this level, we're going to win, I do not care who we play, if we play like we play tonight, we're going to win."
The Rockets have good reason to believe that, and it has little to do with the strong possibility that there would have been a championship parade in downtown Houston if Paul's hamstring had not appeared in the last minute of his victory. Game 5 about Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference finals of last season.
It's about the Rockets right now, who have been the best basketball team since the All-Star break.
Houston, with its top players finally healthy, is the best in the league 18-4 in that span and ranks second in offensive and defensive efficiency.
Paul, the future Hall of Famer who forced the trade to Houston because he felt that the Clippers' window as legitimate contenders had closed, looks like a teammate of the caliber of the championship again after a slow start to the season and an absence prolonged due to a tension in the thigh. . He is not yet throwing the ball as well as he would like, but Paul has once again become a player and defender of elite players. He dominated all facets of the game on Wednesday, when the Rockets outscored the Clippers by 23 points in their 27 minutes.
The center Clint Capela, the third Houston star who missed 15 games due to a thumb surgery in the middle of the season, is once again an elastic monster. His length and athletic ability overwhelmed LA when Capela registered 24 points, 15 rebounds and 2 blocks in the explosion.
Harden, as Clippers coach Doc Rivers said, before the game, is playing so well that it makes 50-point nights look easy. He scored 31 on Wednesday, needing only 15 shots from the floor to do it.
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The Rockets, who have had the NBA's second-best defense since the All-Star break, shut down the Nuggets in a 112-85 win on Thursday, a performance coach Mike D & # 39; Antoni called his best effort. defensive of the season.
And the depth problems that were among the many initial problems of the Rockets have been resolved. Rivers and Kenneth Faried, purchase agreements signed as emergency starters when Paul and Capela fell, now provide a top-notch game from the pine. Danuel House Jr., back from the G League after general manager Daryl Morey blinked after a contract showdown, is another key piece that was not in the rotation to start the season.
The Rockets, who are 1½ games behind the Nuggets and own the tiebreaker, would prefer to take advantage of the second seed. But his main concern is to stay healthy: a pair of victories on this west coast helped that cause by allowing headlines to rest late, and continue to mount their surge of momentum to the playoffs.
If they can do it, they trust that it will not matter if they face the Clippers or Jazz or Spurs or Thunder in the first round. Or when they eventually have to go through Golden State.
"I really think we're starting to reach a good time in the playoffs," Rivers said. "If we can continue with this, as I said before and people did a lot about it, but I think if we continue to defend ourselves in this way and play like that, I really think we can do something special."
"We're good enough, I really think we're good enough to win everything, but we have to play at that level with that mentality because the team that won three of the last four [titles], all the games do. The Warriors play at a different level, so to beat them, we'll have to play the way we play now. "