LOS ANGELES -- The Houston Rockets were a desperate team from the minute they walked into Staples Center early Sunday morning.
When they left, they were smiling thanks to a gritty 100-98 victory over a Los Angeles Clippers team welcoming Blake Griffin back from injury. The Rockets haven't lost three games straight all season and stopped a critical two-game slide to finish this four-games-in-nine-days road trip 2-2.
"Edge, an edge," Rockets guard James Harden said of the attitude of the team. "We came off two losses, two bad losses and it was key for us to come out and come way with the victory. It was whatever it took."
Incidentally, the Rockets basically welcomed back Harden, who had slumped during the two-game slide himself, averaging 16.5 points and shooting 31.2 percent from the field. He finished with 34 points, including a 17-for-18 effort from the foul line. After not making a 3-pointer the past two games and misfiring on 11 straight, Harden went 3-of-5 from long range on Sunday.
To say the Rockets needed their MVP candidate to win this wouldn't be totally accurate.
There was Trevor Ariza drawing a charge on Griffin with 12 seconds to go and defending Chris Paul on his potential game-tying shot at the buzzer that missed. Terrence Jones made two key fourth-quarter tip-ins and snagged a team-high 12 rebounds against taller defenders DeAndre Jordan and Griffin. Patrick Beverley played an effective 32 minutes and, despite Paul getting 23 points, the Clippers' All-Star took 21 shots to get there.
"TJ has been playing like that all year since he came back from the [calf] injury," Harden said. "We've got so many guys who made big plays. TJ and Trevor made a couple of big plays at the end. Patrick did a really good job on Chris Paul. Those things don't show up on the stat sheet but they won us the game."
What also inspired the Rockets was a second-quarter tackle from Matt Barnes on Harden that surely will be reviewed by the league.
As Harden was driving to the basket, Barnes grabbed him with both arms and threw him to the ground. It caused shock waves along the Rockets' bench as Harden's personal bodyguard stepped up, Jones and Beverley exchanged words with Barnes and coach Kevin McHale, who didn't like what he saw, standing on the floor stunned.
Barnes was given a flagrant foul 1 for his transgression but things could change after the league reviews it.
The Barnes throwdown pumped up the Rockets.
"Things like that are fun," Harden said. "We have fun. We got boosted off that and we turned it up."
The Rockets were trailing 38-32 at the time of the dustup with Barnes and they went on a 9-2 run after that to take a 41-40 lead. The half ended with the Rockets leading 58-50 after outscoring the Clippers 28-13 to finish the half.
"I thought in the second quarter we did what we worked on," McHale said. "We really moved the ball well, we got things going, played though our bigs and we made them chase. We did a pretty good job in the third quarter. We just have to be able to have confidence to do that, especially when teams turn up the pressure."
The Rockets needed help with ball movement, rebounding and energy after their two-game losing streak. A spirited practice on the UCLA campus on Saturday afternoon gave McHale confidence his team would perform better.
The Rockets misfired on their first 11 three-pointers on Sunday but the ball movement kept going as the starting frontcourt took 44 shots. Although Harden regained his scoring touch, he also finished with seven assists. The Rockets were out-rebounded by 40 during the losing streak and will continue to get beat on the boards until Dwight Howard (knee) returns. They were also out-rebounded Sunday (50-43), but it was by a much smaller margin and the Rockets clearly attacked the glass with everybody.
"This was a win that we needed, especially on the road," Ariza said. "Going into the home stretch, these are the types of games we have to win."
The Rockets did, now they come home relieved, happy and with an edge.