Houston Rockets Game Day:
Record: 42-24, Western: 5, Record: 43-22, Western: 4,
Pacific : 2nd, last ten 5-5 Southwest: 2nd, last ten 6-4
Houston Rockets vs Los Angeles Clippers
Sun Mar 15, 3:30 PM EST – ABC, C+D
Staples Center – Los Angeles, CA
Rockets Look to Get Back on Track:
Today marks exactly two weeks since James Harden and the Rockets took down LeBron James and the Cavaliers in a highly entertaining but chippy overtime game. It also subsequently launched arguably the worst period of the Rockets’ season given some concerning shifts that have occurred, albeit via unusual circumstances.
The first blow came with James Harden had to sit out the Atlanta game while serving a one game suspension for “the kick” on LeBron James. In that loss the Rockets led for the majority of the game and it’s conceivable they would have won had he played.
That unfortunate loss was followed by the terrible no call game versus Memphis. The reason this is so significant is the Grizzlies were able to tie the season series with two wins a piece. Had the call been made it’s plausible the Rockets could have won as Harden would likely have nailed both free throws and at worst the game would have gone into overtime.
In essence these two games cost the Rockets the opportunity to overtake Memphis for first in the division and second in the West. And now, should the teams find themselves tied at season end the Rockets won’t hold the series tie-break, rather the conference won-lost record would be utilized. Losing that final game also gave Memphis a pad in the conference column (won-lost) of 2.5 games as opposed to just one game.
Although the Rockets rebounded with wins over Detroit and Denver they followed that up with two key losses. The first was pivotal in that it came at the hands of Portland which also game the Trail Blazers the tie-break advantage and simultaneously pushed them ahead of Houston in the standings. Reeling from that result, Houston got manhandled by a young up and coming Jazz squad and for the first time in the 15 games Dwight Howard has been out injured we could see how much his paint protection and rebounding are missing.
Perhaps more concerning is the play of James Harden during this period. In the games versus Portland and Utah he’s struggled from the field shooting a combined 10 of 32 or 31.2%. In addition, his three-point shot abandoned him as he couldn’t connect once from deep in the past 2 games shooting 0 for 8.
Today’s game offers yet another significant test as the Rockets look to tie the season series with the Clippers who currently sit just a 1.5 games back of them in fifth. Including today, the Rockets have 17 games remaining and the speculation is Howard won’t return until the end of March, meaning the team would be without his services for approximately 9 additional games. Therefore the Rockets and Harden specifically will need to find another gear to weather the storm.
If there is a positive it’s the Rockets next stretch of games include 4 games versus non playoff teams (Orlando, Denver, Phoenix and Minnesota as well as 3 Eastern squads including two teams who have been struggling (Wizards and Raptors). Howard’s projected return would coincide with a tough stretch against Dallas, Oklahoma City, San Antonio (twice) and New Orleans.
Bottom line, the Rockets and Harden need to enter today viewing this game as a must win so they can get back on track and widen the margin between themselves and the Clippers. The reality is that is easier said than done as this team has historically owned the Rockets and Harden has some of his poorer results against them.
It’s an early game today (3:00 pm) featured on ABC. Here’s how the teams match up:
[table id=40 /]
Feb 25, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; Los Angeles Clippers guard Chris Paul (3) attempts to score during the fourth quarter as Houston Rockets forward Donatas Motiejunas (20) and forward Terrence Jones (6) defend at Toyota Center. The Rockets defeated the Clippers 110-105. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
[table id=42 /]
all stats via nba.com
Feb 6, 2015; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin (32) talks to head coach Doc Rivers against the Toronto Raptors at Air Canada Centre. The Raptors beat the Clippers 123-107. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports
Notably while the Clippers rank first in offense they have seen a big dip in the month of March falling to 13th with 103.3 points. Given Blake Griffin has missed 15 games it’s understandable, however there is slippage elsewhere specifically from their bench production (see below). Houston for their part haven’t fared much better dropping from 6th in opponent 3-point shooting all the way to 21st, 14th on defense, 19th on offense and a net rating of 17th. Suffice to say James Harden is starting to feel the wear and tear of carrying this squad.
- Blake Griffin- originally listed as out, he has been upgraded to questionable with either today or Tuesday slated as his return date (as per Rotoworld
- Jamal Crawford is listed as out for today’s game
- Kostas Papanikolaou he was considered probable for Thursday’s game but did not play and remains listed as day to day with an ankle sprain,
- Dwight Howard has targeted late March for his return date
[table id=41 /]
While the Clippers haven’t slipped in the standings and the combination of Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan have carried the load with Griffin out for 15 games, the one area where there has been obvious slippage is their bench production. This is also due to the loss of Jamal Crawford and highlights how little depth the Clippers have. Specifically the past ten days they’ve ranked a league worst in defensive efficiency and efficiency.
stats via hoopsstats.com
— NBA TV (@NBATV) March 14, 2015
Obviously Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan represent the main threat as they have kept the Clippers afloat in Griffin’s absence. Paul has the media renewing their admiration for his leadership and Jordan has raised his performance level.
However there are two players to specifically keep an eye on: J.J. Redick and Matt Barnes, both of whom will spend time guarding Harden and have been highly successful at limiting the Beard’s production historically.
Meanwhile Harden will look to get his shooting touch back on track and rebound from two sub-par efforts. The one thing we know for sure is Harden will definitely be dialed in and as he showcased versus LeBron, he tends to get up for the big afternoon Nationally televised games.
Corey Brewer has been a one man wrecking crew for the Rockets during this road trip, so since the Clippers’ bench have slipped dramatically to the bottom of the reserve ranks this should be an area the Rockets look to exploit. Hopefully he’ll find some willing company to join him in his efforts. This one has the feel for the potential of either Josh Smith or Jason Terry to play the role of x factor.
- Blake Griffin 22.5 points per game
- DeAndre Jordan 14.6 rebounds per game
- Chris Paul 10.1 assists per game
- DeAndre Jordan 2.2 blocks per game
- Chris Paul 1.9 steals per game
- James Harden 26.8 points per game
- Dwight Howard 11 rebounds per game
- James Harden 7.1 assists per game
- Terrence Jones 1.8 blocks per game
- James Harden 2.0 steals per game
Mar 7, 2015; Denver, CO, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) reacts during the second half against the Denver Nuggets at Pepsi Center. The Rockets won 114-100. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports
Keys to Winning:
- Push the pace
- Even with Jordan putting up ridiculous rebounding efforts the Clippers still rank 22nd and while Houston are without Howard they can own the game if they own the boards
- Drive the ball directly at Jordan and Griffin (if he plays) to get them in early foul trouble.
- Capitalize on huge bench production disparity
- Clippers rank 25th in defense of the three. Though Houston rank 6th they’ve been terrible in March so they’ll need to clean up this part of their game while taking advantage on the offensive end.
- With Brewer scoring an average of 24.0 points per game during this road trip get him involved early so Los Angeles is forced to remove secondary defenders from Harden.
The odds makers have the Clippers favored to win by 4.5 points. This is probably based on the game being on their court, the possible return of Griffin and the recent offensive slippage of Harden. However, even if Griffin returns he may suffer some initially rust and it could effect his teammates as well. Yet the Clippers have their own issues as their last game resulted in a 30-point thrashing at the hands of the Mavericks on Friday and will once again be without the services of Jamal Crawford.
While I usually would lean toward favoring a team who has history on their side I’m thinking the Rockets and specifically Harden will be looking to make a statement. Not only are they looking to keep distance between themselves and the Clippers they also will want to ensure they don’t lose another tie-break advantage against a Western team. Harden hasn’t gone 3 games in a row all season scoring less than 20 points so look for him to keep that streak in tact. Expect another tough, gritty playoff type contest with Harden forcing the issue. I’ll take the Rockets in a tight one by 2 points.
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