By The Associated Press
No. 2 Houston Rockets (56-26, 4-1) VS. No. 3 Los Angeles Clippers (56-26, 4-3).
Season Series: Split, 2-2. Each team won once at home and once on the road, with the Clippers winning in more decisive fashion. They cruised to 17-point and 15-point wins while the Rockets won by two points and five points in their two victories.
Story Line: Will Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and the Clippers have enough left in the tank after an emotional, grueling seven-game series victory over defending champion San Antonio against MVP candidate James Harden and the Rockets.
Key Matchup 1: Paul vs. his hamstring. The Clippers’ leader had to leave Game 7 against the Spurs on Saturday night after pulling his right hamstring. He returned to the game and delivered a gutsy performance that included the game-winning leaner over Tim Duncan in the closing seconds. But coach Doc Rivers said he would be surprised if Paul was available for Game 1, an injury that could change the entire complexion of the series.
Key Matchup 2: Dwight Howard vs. DeAndre Jordan. Howard missed all four of the games against the Clippers in the regular season due to a knee injury. But he looked every bit of his old dominant self in the first round series against Dallas, averaging 16.6 points, 13.8 rebounds and 3.0 blocks in 36.5 minutes per game. He had his way with Mavericks veteran Tyson Chandler, but now faces a younger version of himself in Jordan, the Clippers’ alley-oop catching, shot-blocking force.
X-Factor: Jamal Crawford. He filled in capably in Game 7 when Paul went out because of injury, scoring nine points, dishing two assists and taking over the role of primary ball-handler and playmaker. If Paul can’t play or is limited, Crawford will have to be effective for the Clippers to have a chance.
Prediction: The series likely depends on Paul’s health. If Rivers is right and it’s a significant injury, Rockets in 6.