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Soaring victory has Rockets thinking big again

LOS ANGELES -- Only one member of the Houston Rockets would admit to hoping to face the LA Clippers in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs in the wake of the road team's 135-103 rout Wednesday night at Staples Center.

For Austin Rivers, it's about purely personal reasons, a chance to claim family bragging rights and to beat the team that traded him last summer. Chris Paul played it coy, but Rivers knows he feels the same way.

"Absolutely, you could see it tonight in the way he played," Rivers told ESPN after Paul torched the Clippers for 27 points and seven assists, a performance highlighted by a 60-foot buzzer-beater to end the third quarter. "You play your former team, that's what you do. It would make it even more competitive. And they're a good team. They would come at us, because a lot of their guys played over here. So it would be a fun series."

The rest of the Rockets? They really don't care who comes to the Toyota Center to open the playoffs next weekend.

It's likely to be the Clippers in a matchup of third and sixth seeds, a probability that increased with the result of Wednesday's head-to-head, as well as wins by the second-place Denver Nuggets and fifth-place Utah Jazz. If that's the case, the Rockets will consider this blowout win to be irrelevant.

"You can't really make too many statements," Paul said dismissively, pointing out that the Clippers are a much tougher team with Pat Beverley. The pitbull guard, who was part of the package the Rockets gave up to get Paul to co-star with James Harden, sat out Wednesday night with a hip injury.

One statement the Rockets will make with confidence: They're capable of beating anybody if they keep rolling like they have been recently.

"If we're doing what we're supposed to do, nobody can beat us," forward PJ Tucker told ESPN. "Anybody, don't matter. ... If we play at this level, we're going to win. I don't 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 wouldn't have popped in the final minute of their Game 5 win over the Golden State Warriors in last season's Western Conference finals.

It's about right now for the Rockets, who have been the best team in basketball since the All-Star break.

Houston, with their core players finally all healthy, is a league-best 18-4 in that span and ranks second in both offensive and defensive efficiency.

Paul, the future Hall of Famer who forced the trade to Houston because he felt the Clippers' window as legitimate contenders had closed, looks like a championship-caliber sidekick again after a slow start to the season and an extended absence due to a hamstring strain. He still isn't shooting the ball as consistently well as he'd like, but Paul is back to being an elite playmaker and defender. He dominated every facet of the game on Wednesday, when the Rockets outscored the Clippers by 23 points in his 27 minutes.

Center Clint Capela, Houston's third star who missed 15 games due to thumb surgery in the middle of the season, is back to being a springy monster. His length and athleticism overwhelmed LA as Capela recorded 24 points, 15 rebounds and 2 blocks in the blowout.

Harden, as Clippers coach Doc Rivers said before the game, is playing so well that he makes 50-point nights seem easy. He scored 31 on Wednesday, needing only 15 shots from the floor to do it.

And the depth issues that were among the Rockets' many early-season problems have been solved. Rivers and Kenneth Faried, buyout bargains signed as emergency starters when Paul and Capela went down, now provide starter-caliber play off the pine. Danuel House Jr., back from the G League after getting GM Daryl Morey to blink following a contractual standoff, is another key piece that wasn't in the rotation to start the season.

The Rockets, who are 1½ games behind the Nuggets and own the tiebreaker, would prefer to seize the second seed. But their primary concern is staying healthy -- a pair of blowout wins on this West Coast back-to-back helped that cause by allowing the starters to rest late -- and continuing to ride their wave of momentum into the playoffs.

If they can do that, they're confident that it won't 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 peak at a good time going into the playoffs," Rivers said. "If we can keep this up, like I said earlier and people made a big deal of it, but I think if we continue to defend like this and play like this, I really think we can do something special.

"We are good enough. I really do believe we are good enough to win it all, but we have to play at that level with that mindset. Because the team that won three of the last four [titles], they do it every f---ing game. The Warriors play at a different level, so to beat them, we're going to have to play the way we're playing now."