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LOS ANGELES — Let’s be honest. Everyone was hyped for a brawl. Instead, we got a blowout—and maybe the most gloriously disrespectful play in NBA history.
The rematch between the Rockets and Clippers was must-see for obvious reasons. The last time these two teams played at Staples Center, we all know things got testy on the court and way too extra off it. So in Houston’s return to Los Angeles on Wednesday, wild and crazy was the expectation. Only it was the play of both teams and not the posturing—well, other than that one play in the first quarter from the likely MVP—that was the story and not any extracurricular activities.
In a relatively civilized spanking, the NBA’s best team cruised to a 105-92 victory over the Clippers in front of 19,068 in downtown Los Angeles. Unlike January’s meeting, the only fireworks on this night were the ones shot out of the baskets during introductions.
"We made a mistake last time and we weren’t going to let that happen again," Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said after the game. "I thought we caught them with tired legs. It was just workmanship out there. We got it done."
Maybe the subdued nature of this one was because the Clippers were playing the second leg of a back-to-back, less than 24 hours removed from a hard-fought victory in the altitude of Denver. Or maybe it was because Blake Griffin—one of the instigators back on Jan. 15—was nowhere to be found since he now plays for the Pistons. Whatever the reason, the NBA is happy things did not become problematic. But this one was memorable nonetheless thanks to the magic of James Harden, who damned poor Wesley Johnson to social media Hell with a deadly crossover/staredown combo.
"It was crazy. You don’t see things like that all the time," said Rockets sixth man Eric Gordon, who finished with 22 points. "I definitely laughed. Everybody is going to be talking about that for a while."
The Beard broke the Clippers reserve’s ankles, dared him to get up and meet him beyond the arc, waited approximately three seconds for someone—anyone—to close out, then calmly drained the three after what felt like an eternity. The Rockets bench went ballistic. So did Staples. It was the loudest the building would get the entire night. The Rockets ended the first with a 22-point lead and other than a run in the third quarter that cut the deficit to nine, the Clippers—for all intents and purposes—never really recovered from it.
"Wasn’t too bad, was it?" D’Antoni said. "He’s unbelievable. It’s not the first time. I’ve seen a lot of them. That’s James."
Harden had a little fun with the media in the locker room after the game, claiming he was "confused" on the play, hence the hesitation in shooting the three.
"I was looking at him and he was looking at me and I was trying to figure out what he was doing," said Harden, who finished with a game-high 25 after going off for 17 in the first quarter. "I was going to shoot it but I was waiting to figure out what was going on. I was confused."
That’s one way of describing it. The play basically broke the spirit of the Clippers—and set off NBA Twitter.
"I’ve experienced it as a player. I’ve experienced as a coach. It is what it is," Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. "He is who he is for a reason. If it was easy to stop him, we would know about it. That’s what makes him special."
While physical play dominated the last meeting, both sides kept it classy this time. Plus, the vibe in the building didn’t make you feel like things were about to bubble over. Maybe that’s a Clippers crowd thing. Maybe that’s an LA thing. But bottom line, the Clippers were a tired team. "We just didn’t have it," Rivers said. "That’s the slowest game we played in eight weeks." And those around the team maintained that this game didn’t mean anything extra to the Clippers, even if the storylines and buildup said otherwise.
“It was crazy. You don’t see things like that all the time. I definitely laughed. Everybody is going to be talking about that for a while.” — Eric Gordon, Rockets
Remember, cops had to be summoned to the Clippers locker room the last time the Rockets were in town. In the eyes of Trevor Ariza, Chris Paul, Gerald Green, and Harden, the bad blood on the court—things simmered throughout the game before coming to a head late in the fourth quarter when Griffin bumped into D’Antoni and scuffled with Ariza—had to be settled off it. This time, in the visitors’ locker room where the quartet reportedly marched through a back entrance into the Clippers' locker room, it was jokingly taped off with caution tape.
"I don’t know what you’re talking about," Paul said, tongue-in-cheek, as he snapped a pic of the mock crime scene between fielding questions.
Nothing but good vibes around the Rockets this time in LA. Instead of a fight, fans got another affirmation that the Rockets, winners of 14 straight games with their offensive firepower and seriously improved defense, are going to put up one hell of a fight come late May and maybe even June with Harden and his handle leading the way.