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NBA Playoffs: Houston Rockets vs. L.A. Clippers – Game 3

By Tamberlyn Richardson
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NBA Playoffs: Houston Rockets vs. L.A. Clippers

Game Three

Fri May 8, 10:30 PM EST – ESPN, C+D

Staples Center – Los Angeles, CA

Latest Results:

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Next: What's the Story?

May 6, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; Los Angeles Clippers guard Chris Paul (middle) and head coach Doc Rivers (left) react with the bench after a play during the second half against the Houston Rockets in game two of the second round of the NBA Playoffs at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Story Lines:

Chris Paul’s Health:

As of Friday morning Chris Paul‘s availability for Game 3 remains uncertain. There is reason to believe Doc Rivers might not foreclose if Paul was going to play just to keep the Rockets guessing, but a hamstring is a tricky injury. Given the series schedule has games every other day it’s believable Paul could still be suffering the effects and not fully recovered.

In addition, with the series tied and the Clippers playing well in Paul’s absence it also makes sense to not rush the All-Star point guard back to the court. If however CP3 doesn’t suit up for the third consecutive game and the Rockets could manage to steal a win Friday it’s reasonable to assume the Clippers and Paul would be more intent on his return for the fourth game Sunday.

Which Rockets Team Will Arrive in L.A.?: 

Through the first 2 games, and more specifically the first 7 quarters of this series the Rockets team we’ve witnessed hit the court hasn’t even been close to the squad we saw amass a 56 win season or dispense of the Mavericks in 5 games. We’ve been left guessing as to why the team has been playing so out of character. It’s odd a team who scrapped through most of the season short handed hasn’t displayed the same fighting spirit for the most part.

Perhaps the Clippers are just that good, but watching the series (outside the fourth quarter in game 2) the team seemingly abandoned the things that made them successful. Maybe now that the Rockets are on the road they can rediscover the fighting spirit that permeated their winning season. It’s time the Rockets channel their inner warrior, as they need to hit first and show the Clippers they aren’t about to be pushed around. Through the first 2 games the Clippers have been the tougher team and that has to change if the Rockets want to move on.

The other major difference is the Rockets hung their hat on their improved defense this season following the season prior where they dominated offensively. With the return of Terrence Jones and Dwight Howard to the starting line-up we’re beginning to see signs the team is functioning better on the offensive end of the court. The next step will be to rediscover their defensive prowess which has been missing for large stretches of this series.

Next: Is L.A. the Land Beyond the Arc?

May 4, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets forward Trevor Ariza (1) dribbles the ball against the Los Angeles Clippers in game one of the second round of the NBA Playoffs at Toyota Center. Los Angeles Clippers won 117 to 101. Mandatory Credit: Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Can Rockets Rediscover the Land Behind the Arc in LA?

One category still missing through the first 2 games is the Rockets perimeter mastery. Not only were the Rockets the top ranked 3-point attempts and makes team through the regular season, but they also were the best perimeter defenders. We’ve seen glimpses of the perimeter defense specifically in Game one, in the first half and Game 2 they held the Clippers to 24%. However their own 3-pointers have been AWOL to this point. It’s understandable their attempts are lower given the half court offense which tends to dominate the post season coupled with Dwight Howard playing better.

Yet, shooting under 20% in Game 2 is well off their season average of 34.8%. Further their playoff averages of 27.1 attempts and 8.9 makes are well off their league leading season averages of 32.7 attempts (5.4 less) and 11.7 makes  (2.8 less). When Trevor Ariza and James Harden hit back to back  three’s in the fourth quarter of Game 2, the entire team appeared to gain energy from the outburst and suddenly the squad we’d been searching for  seemingly arrived.

Given the Clippers were the 14th ranked perimeter defenders in the regular season (34.9%) the fact they’ve limited the Rockets to 26.25% through the first 2 games is somewhat surprising. It’s likely the Clippers are defending well, but more likely the Rockets haven’t quite rediscovered their touch after the lengthy rest between the two series. Logically the Rockets snipers are bound to show up and the road might be the best place to rediscover their shot from deep.

Next: Honing In On The Two Teams Stars

May 6, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) reacts after a play during the fourth quarter against the Los Angeles Clippers in game two of the second round of the NBA Playoffs at Toyota Center. The Rockets defeated the Clippers 115-109 to tie the series at 1-1. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Will the Real James Harden Stand Up:

While it’s reasonable to assume James Hardenwas left disenchanted by Stephen Curry winning MVP, the hangover from that disappointment lasted much longer than anyone expected. Harden played the first 7 quarters looking like he was content to play the role of facilitator and although he’s never been known as a ball protector the shear number of turnovers has been disconcerting. Whether he felt he’s been getting a bad whistle or not the fact he stopped attacking the paint was also puzzling. That was until the fourth quarter of game 2 when finally the man who gave pundits reason to place him second in MVP voting arrived.

The Rockets identity this season paralleled their leader and the MVB (most valuable beard) repeatedly took to the court with an aggression and feistiness which spurred his teammates performances. Let’s hope the man who took over in the fourth quarter shows up in L.A. because when he plays determined with a chip on his shoulder the entire squad follows his lead.

Blake Griffin STILL Needs To Be Addressed:

Through the first 2 games Blake Griffin  has without question been the best player on the court. Like Harden said in his post game comments, we can’t allow Blake Griffin or any player for that matter to score 26 points in a half. Harden also hinted the Rockets figured a few things out and given Griffin was limited to 8 points in the second half of game 2, one might point to Dwight Howard and Trevor Ariza taking turns on him defensively.

Terrence Jones also got additional minutes during the second half Wednesday. Perhaps the small ball line-up causes more issues for the Clippers as it forces Griffin to defend a variety of players and skill sets. Now, if Josh Smith can join these front court players and also find his mojo the Rockets will reap the benefits.

Next: The Numbers Don't Lie

May 6, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; Los Angeles Clippers guard Jamal Crawford (11) drives to the basket during the third quarter as Houston Rockets forward Josh Smith (5) defends in game two of the second round of the NBA Playoffs at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

 Season Stats:

[table id=112 /]

Playoff Stats:

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Next: Limping Forward?

May 4, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets injured forward Donatas Motiejunas (20) and guard Patrick Beverley (2) cheer against the Los Angeles Clippers in the second half in game one of the second round of the NBA Playoffs at Toyota Center. Los Angeles Clippers won 117 to 101. Mandatory Credit: Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

 Walking Wounded:

Los Angeles:

Chris Paul – as mentioned above the news circulating yesterday and today is that Chris Paul participated in a pool workout Wednesday and minor on court workout Thursday. Doc Rivers indicated as per the Houston Chronicle he still wasn’t  sure if Paul would suit up for Game 3.

Jordan Hamilton: Hasn’t played in the post season after suffering a concussion

Chris Paul (hamstring) a game-day decision Friday http://t.co/XYQPMOUgiB

— Basketball Monster (@BaskMonster) May 7, 2015

Houston:

  • K.J. McDaniels injured his wrist in what was reported as a likely fracture in the final game of the season
  • Donatas Motiejunas Out for season (back).
  • Patrick Beverley  Out for season following surgery to repair torn ligaments in his wrist. Beverley has said he’ll be back, but wanting something to be true and forcing it to be true are two different things.

Next: What do you have in reserve?

May 6, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; Los Angeles Clippers guard Jamal Crawford (11) drives to the basket during the fourth quarter as Houston Rockets guard Jason Terry (31) defends in game two of the second round of the NBA Playoffs at Toyota Center. The Rockets defeated the Clippers 115-109 to tie the series at 1-1. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Bench Mob:

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Full bench stats at hoopsstats.com

Key Match-up:

It took until Game 2 for the Rockets to finally appear to play with any sense of desperation and much of that change came about with McHale changing the coverage on Blake Griffin. Specifically McHale utilized a combination of Dwight Howard and Trevor Ariza on him in the second half. This small ball line-up also got the Rockets offense rolling.

By the time James Harden returned to the court after sitting for a lengthy spell due to 4 personal fouls, he also found his inner warrior and was ready to lead the team to victory. Subsequently, the Rockets played more freely, with pace and ran the offense as successfully as they did during the season.

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The other change McHale made was to utilize Terrence Jones more than Josh Smith in the second half which also paid dividends.

Whether McHale spotted something in the Clippers schemes or he was simply relying on a hunch, watch to see who gets the minutes Friday.

As I’ve highlighted throughout this series, no one is going to stop Blake Griffin, but with games every other day a steady diet of Jones, Smith, Howard and Ariza on Griffin may start to wear down the Clippers forward especially if the series is a long one.

It feels like at some point this weekend whether it’s Friday in Game 3 or Sunday in Game 4 the teams three point field goal percentage is bound to improve. For that to occur players like  Corey Brewer Jason Terry  and James Harden need to build off the success they were experiencing in the fourth quarter Wednesday.

Clippers JJ Redick and Matt Barnes did a good job on Harden through the first 7 quarters of the series, but once Harden decided to diversify his offense and be more aggressive the 2 Clipper wings began to amass fouls.  To that end, whether Rivers was implementing his Hack-A-Strategy or the Clippers were simply getting caught fouling they sent the Rockets to the line an unprecedented 64 times. Even though the Rockets shot only 65.6% that still accounted for 42 free throws which was 10 more than the total attempted by Los Angeles.

Next: Difference Makers

May 6, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard (12) reacts after a play during the first quarter against the Los Angeles Clippers in game two of the second round of the NBA Playoffs at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Season Leaders:

Clippers:

Rockets:

Individual Playoff Stat Leaders:

Points: James Harden – 27.7 points per game, third overall, second of remaining players in post season

Rebounds:Dwight Howard  is first with 13.6 rebounds per game Blake Griffin is second with 13.4 and  DeAndre Jordan sits third with 13.1

Assists:  A developing story line of the series has been the assists players other than point guards are capturing. Specifically shooting guard  James Harden ranks second in playoff assists with 8.3 assists per game while power forward Blake Griffin is fifth with 7.7 and Chris Paul remains third with 7.9 assists per game (having not played in this series yet).

Field Goal Percent:  DeAndre Jordan – remains first with a field goal percent with a gawdy 73.3%, but following a solid Game 2 effort Dwight Howard moved into fifth with a 62.0% field goal percent.

Blocks: Dwight Howard – continues to top playoff block artists with 3.4 blocks per game while  DeAndre Jordan stayed third with  2.8 blocks per game

Next: What's the Key?

May 4, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin (32) shoots against the Los Angeles Clippers in the second half in game one of the second round of the NBA Playoffs at Toyota Center. Los Angeles Clippers won 117 to 101. Mandatory Credit: Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Keys To Winning:

TURN OVERS:

Houston definitely improved their overall ball protection in the second game of the series. Following the 24 they coughed up in Game 1, the Rockets reduced that number to 14 in Game 2. But, James Harden has been particularly accident prone with 9 turnovers in Game 1 and 7 in Game 2 which was half of the Rockets 14 total turnovers.

BENCH PRODUCTION:

Oddly the Houston reserves haven’t lived up to their billing while the Clippers have been over performing even while depleted. Entering Game 3 it does feel like the Rockets’ bench is due for a big game. Specifically Brewer and Smith are due for a break out effort.

DEFENSE: 

Though the Rockets offense had been sputtering until the second half of Game 2, the reality is until Houston found a flow offensively their defense had been sporadic at best. They’ve had moments but have yet to put together a sustained 48 minute effort.

A thought occurred to me after Game 2, Howard and Jones have only returned to the starting line-up toward the end of the season and this coincided with the loss of Beverley.

Basically, the Rockets have always been in adjusting mode which speaks to why they haven’t found a continuity yet. When the team was playing depleted everyone had a role and Harden was forced into doing more.

Now, with the returned players everyone’s role changed again and Harden’s role changed the most when Beverley went down. Therefore, it’s somewhat understandable the team is still making adjustments.

PACE:

As mentioned in the previous pregame analysis’ the Rockets need to force the pace. I think without Chris Paul the Clippers played faster than they typically do and this threw the Rockets a bit. Couple that with the team being rusty and not in sync and you got the Game 1 loss and poor play in the first half of Game 2.

As soon as the team increased the pace the Rockets began to click on both ends. I maintain (other than x-factor players) pace will be the key game adjustment that wins this series.  The longer the series last the more the Clippers’ starters will play and with a deeper bench it stands to reason Houston will be the benefactors.

COACHING:

Doc Rivers continues to utilize the Hack-A-Strategy with varying degrees of success. While it won the Clippers Game 1 by keeping the Rockets mired in mud it was less successful in Game 2.  Alternately Kevin McHale’s adjustments on the defensive coverage of Blake Griffin in addition to utilizing a small ball line-up was the turning point in the Rockets Game 2 win.

PERIMETER MASTERY:

As I touched on in the key story lines for Houston to be successful they need to integrate their 3 point shot back into their offensive arsenal. Though wins won’t be reliant on the squad shooting as many three’s as they did during the regular season, certainly hitting a better percentage is key. Once again pace affects this area of their game as the Rockets perimeter shooting often stems from transition or swift ball movement in the offensive zone. Keep an eye for the team purposely looking to make these improvement on the road.

Next: And the magic eight ball predicts...

May 6, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets forward Terrence Jones (6) and Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin (32) battle for a rebound during the second half in game two of the second round of the NBA Playoffs at Toyota Center. The Rockets defeated the Clippers 115-109 to tie the series at 1-1. Mandatory Credit: David J Phillip-Pool Photo via USA TODAY Sports

The Picks:

Game Three

I’m thinking the odds makers figure Chris Paul is a good bet to play and have factored in the Clippers will be back at the Staples Center and therefore are giving the edge to the home town Clippers by 6.o points. The relatively close spread speaks to how little has separated the two teams through the first 2 games.

The Editors Pick:

Obviously if Chris Paul makes his return it will serve to boost the spirits of the Clippers as will being back on their home court. I’m guessing either tonight or Sunday we’ll start to see the effects of the schedule on the Clippers. Friday features their fourth game in 6 nights and Sunday will be their 5 game in 8 nights. Given the Clippers utilize their starters such heavy minutes and outside their “big 3” plus Austin Rivers the team is comprised mainly of veteran players. Factor in how intense and physical the Spurs series was and it’s feasible to expect the Rockets to grab a split in L.A.

If Chris Paul plays this evening I’d think the Clippers get the edge, conversely if the Rockets could steal a victory tonight to open the Clippers initial 2-games on their home court  it would add additional pressure for L.A. to play more desperate. As the Rockets discovered in Game 2 playing with a balance of desperation and freedom is a fine line, and they have the additional benefit of rested legs.

Still, I’m thinking this one might be close with the winner taking the game in the pivotal fourth quarter. Look for Doc to be all over the zebra’s given the free throw disparity last game (as he’s already been planting those seeds in the media). If Howard and Harden can remain out of foul trouble and get Jordan in early foul trouble the edge has to go to Houston. Conversely, if the Clippers can mire the 2 Rockets All-Stars with early fouls the edge would certainly go L.A.’s way.

As with most of the games in this series an early lead has meant nothing. Until one team brings a full 48 minute effort on both ends of the court or the 2 teams are in a nail biter throughout neither has presented themselves to be the favorite. Perhaps this weekend one team will throw down their hat in staking that claim.

A CP3 return could elicit that type of motivation and a full game replicating the fourth quarter breakout by Harden would also do the trick. Personally, I haven’t seen enough to think this series isn’t going the distance as I originally predicted. Let’s see if one of these squads can prove me wrong.

I’m going on gut instinct that Chris Paul dresses and taking the Clippers by 2 points.

Next: Dissecting the Dichotomy of MVP

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