HOUSTON — Matt Barnes had to smile. He couldn’t help it.
Asked about the amount of adversity his team had to navigate in the first half Saturday in the Clippers’ 118-107 victory over the Houston Rockets, Barnes grinned.
“It’s got to be up there,” he said.
The triumph clinched a playoff berth for the Clippers, their franchise-record third in a row.
In the first quarter, the Clippers lost one of their best players, Blake Griffin, to back spasms. Then, early in the second quarter, the team lost another big man when Coach Doc Rivers sent Glen “Big Baby” Davis to the locker room for the rest of the night.
Oh, and while all of that was happening, they trailed by 15 points.
Clippers guard Chris Paul led the comeback. After scoring just two points in the first quarter, Paul began to pick apart Houston’s suspect perimeter defense, finishing with 30 points and 12 assists.
Paul got especially hot from long range, making his first three 3-point shots on his way to five from long range, tying his season high.
The Clippers also got huge games from DeAndre Jordan and Jamal Crawford.
Playing in his hometown, Jordan dominated, scoring 20 points to go along with 12 rebounds and six blocked shots, and Crawford helped replace Griffin’s scoring punch, netting 22 points in just 26 minutes off the bench.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been on a team like this. When guys come to the arena, they’re just ready. It’s happened all season long,” Paul said.
“I think on a lot teams, when a guy goes down, guys start looking for excuses.”
The news on Griffin is spotty, and the team hopes to know more after he’s undergoes further testing.
Rivers said the training staff told him they don’t think the injury is “awful.” But because it’s a back injury, Rivers is obviously concerned.
Griffin took a bump in the first quarter, took a step toward the Clippers’ bench and crumbled to the floor. Eventually, he was able to get up and head to the locker room on his own power.
“It scared the hell out of me,” Rivers said.
With Griffin out, the Clippers could’ve used Davis, but it was clear to Rivers that Davis wasn’t engaged. After just 3 minutes, 45 seconds, Rivers called on Ryan Hollins to replace Davis.
Davis and Rivers had a brief shouting match, and after a brief talk with assistant coach Alvin Gentry, Rivers sent Davis to the locker room for the rest of the game.
“I thought Baby was too emotional. For me, if you’re too emotional, I always send you back to the locker room and keep you back there to the next game,” Rivers said.
“I love Baby. I just didn’t think emotionally he was ready to play tonight so we told him to go into the locker room.
“It’s not a big deal. We needed him tonight, but he wasn’t here emotionally. … I just thought he was a distraction. And when guys are a distraction, I don’t think they should be on the bench.”
Without Davis, the Clippers relied on Hollins, Jared Dudley, Barnes and even Willie Green to log minutes in the frontcourt, and each player responded. Danny Granger had returned to L.A. for treatment of a right hamstring injury.
“To lose Blake in the first quarter and to not have Baby, I’m really proud of our team,” Barnes said. “The mental adversity we’ve fought through, we just stayed the course.
“We’ve been down a lot this season, and it took everybody to come off the bench who hasn’t played in a while to be ready and help us get this win.”
The win completed the season sweep on the Rockets and moved the Clippers two games in front of Houston for the No. 3 seed in the West.
But even more important, it’s another piece of evidence that the team has put an old problem to bed.
“I think it’s what we lacked last year. It’s a big sign of maturity,” Barnes said. “We knew last year it was our weakness. We were mentally weak. And I think a collective focus on being mentally tough has gotten us a long way this year.”