(SportsNetwork.com) - The central storyline in this Western Conference semifinal matchup between the No. 2 Houston Rockets and No. 3 Los Angeles Clippers revolves around a group of tendons that connect the knee to the hip.
Chris Paul, a multiple-time All-Star and a multiple All-Defensive player, strained his left hamstring against the San Antonio Spurs. He is questionable for Monday's Game 1 of this series and any lingering effects could cripple LA's chances of making the franchise's first appearance in the Western Conference Finals.
"If there's any risk, he won't play," Clippers coach Doc Rivers said on Saturday night after LA eliminated San Antonio to end the first round. "I can tell you that right now. I just don't know yet. We'll find out (Monday)."
Paul's acrobatic go-ahead basket with one second remaining lifted the Clippers to a 111-109 win over the defending champion Spurs in a Game 7 thriller on Saturday.
After Tim Duncan's free throws tied the game with 8.8 seconds left, Paul had the ball just inside halfcourt with Danny Green draped all over him.
Paul dribbled to his right to get a step on Green and alertly leaned farther right to avoid Duncan, flicking the ball in over both defenders to put the Clippers in front.
"No balance on the shot, falling backwards, amazing," Rivers said.
Boris Diaw's ensuing lob inbounds pass into the lane intended for Kawhi Leonard was batted away by Matt Barnes, ending the game.
Paul's astounding shot was the 31st lead change of a classic nip-and-tuck game. There were 16 ties and neither team led by more than eight points. Eleven of the lead changes came in the fourth quarter.
It was a fitting conclusion to a tight seven-game series.
"I'm a better person after going through this series," Rivers said.
Paul exited at the 1:52 mark of the first quarter with a left hamstring strain before returning with 6:27 remaining in the second.
Despite the injury, Paul managed to score 18 of his 27 points in the second half. He was 9-of-13 from the field overall and knocked down five of his six attempts from beyond the arc.
While the Clips could've used more than a day to get healthy, the Rockets have been idle since Tuesday. They knocked off the Dallas Mavericks in five games to advance to the semifinals.
Houston looked fantastic against the Mavs, receiving top-quality play from its stars James Harden and Dwight Howard. The bench contributions from two guys who weren't in Houston to start the season -- Josh Smith and Corey Brewer -- were awesome as well.
The Rockets, who were eliminated in the first round last season, battled injuries during this campaign. Howard missed exactly half the season with a knee problem.
Yet, Harden and head coach Kevin McHale helped Houston to its first division title since the 1993-94 season. That season was the first of two consecutive NBA titles.
The two teams, who haven't met in the postseason since 1993, split four meetings this season. Each team won in the other's building and the Rockets won the final two encounters to halt a six-game series losing streak.
"You can only put so much on the regular season," said McHale. "We're both going to try and do what we do well."
BACKCOURT: Harden is probably going to finish second in the MVP balloting. Against the Mavericks, he was his usual spectacular self, scoring 28.4 ppg and handing out 7.8 assists. That last number is so impressive considering the Rockets don't have starting point guard Patrick Beverley. Harden is scoring at an elite level and facilitating at an elite level. He is fourth in the postseason in assists and third in scoring. Harden is the best in the league at getting to the line and he shot 96 percent in round one. Jason Terry has a little bit left in the tank. He only scored 7.8 ppg versus Dallas, but did shoot 47 percent from long range.
Paul was special in Game 7. He winced every time he made a move, but still carried the Clippers on his back. Paul averaged 22.7 ppg, 7.9 apg and 2.0 spg. His defense is so disruptive, this injury may hurt him most on that end, although he'd most likely cover Terry so he can mask the ailment some. Paul is the soul of this squad. He desperately wants to carry the Clippers to greatness. He sometimes tries to do too much, or put too much on himself, but watching him is watching brilliance. J.J. Redick averaged 13.7 points versus San Antonio and shot 41 percent from long range. Does he start on Harden, or does Matt Barnes?
EDGE: ROCKETS (if only because of Paul's injury)
FRONTCOURT: Howard was very impressive against the Mavs and Tyson Chandler, still a strong defensive presence. He averaged 16.6 ppg and 13.8 rpg. Howard's presence in the paint was as special as always, blocking three shots per game. He looks very engaged and energized at both ends of the floor and that's a good thing for Houston. Trevor Ariza was not very good against Dallas, but he did play the most minutes per game for the Rockets. He only shot 29 percent from the field and 23 percent from distance. Both of those numbers will have to improve drastically for round two, although his defense is still better than most. Terrence Jones had a quietly good series versus the Mavs. He averaged 12.8 points and 6.4 rebounds. Couple his production with Smith and that's huge numbers from the power forward spot.
One couldn't play much better than Blake Griffin did against the Spurs. He posted 24.1 ppg, 13.1 rpg, 7.4 apg, 1.4 spg and 1.4 bpg. That is just spectacular all-around production. Those assist numbers are especially impressive. DeAndre Jordan is one of the best defensive centers in the league. He led the NBA in rebounding during the regular season and pulled down nearly 13 per game against Duncan and the Spurs. Jordan's more than shot blocking and rebounding. He's an active presence in the paint. The Clips can't dump it to him on the post and expect moves like the opposing coach used to display, but Jordan is a legit double-figure scorer. Barnes is there primarily for defense, but he can certainly convert an open 3-pointer. He might spend the most time covering Harden, which he can handle.
BENCH: Smith averaged 17.4 ppg, 6.4 rpg and 3.8 assists. He attempted more 3s than anyone on the team other than Harden, but hit on 39 percent of them. Smith was fantastic, and, alongside Corey Brewer, really made the bench an asset for McHale. Brewer scored 14.4 ppg in the first round and hit 53 percent from long range. These two have been outstanding thus far, everything the Rockets could have hoped for in acquiring both. Pablo Prigioni is a bulldog defensively and the only true point guard in the rotation. Clint Capela was very effective in limited minutes. This has become a very important group.
The Clippers' bench took steps backward versus San Antonio. Only Jamal Crawford, Austin Rivers and Glen Davis played consistently, but Doc Rivers hopes to remedy that in the Houston series, especially considering the quick turnaround. Spencer Hawes. Dahntay Jones and Hedo Turkoglu might see more time in this one. Crawford scored, Rivers had a huge Game 4 in San Antonio and Davis has a sprained ankle. The head coach needs more from this group.
COACHING: McHale is not often mentioned among the best coaches in the league. He guided a Houston squad without its second-best player for most of the season to a Southwest Division title, the hardest division in the association. McHale has gotten so much out of Smith and Brewer, while letting Harden run things. McHale lost his starting point guard in Beverley and key bench contributor, Donatas Motiejunas, but the offense still hums. This team looked very good, very prepared and very ready for a deep run.
Rivers is considered one of the best coaches in the league. He is one. Any man who beats a Gregg Popovich team in the first round deserves all praise possible. Rivers needs to use his bench more and acknowledged as much, but he has the Clippers believing in themselves.
PREDICTION: A healthy Paul is vital to the Clippers' chances. If he sits out even one game, that could be enough to swing the balance of power to the Rockets.
Houston looked very good versus Dallas -- Howard and Smith in particular. Smith becomes important in this series because he'll most likely spend the most time on Griffin. Smith can be a good defensive player when the effort is there.
Rest is a factor if, for no other than reason, than the Clippers could use it. Paul's injury notwithstanding, he, Griffin, Jordan and Redick all averaged over 36 minutes a game in that monster series with the Spurs.
Too many question marks for the Clippers, plus the Rockets have an MVP candidate on the roster.
SPORTS NETWORK PREDICTION: ROCKETS in SEVEN