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NBA Playoffs: Houston Rockets vs. L.A. Clippers – Game 4, Time For Harden To Lead

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

Game Four

Fri May 10th, 8:30 PM EST – ESPN, C+D

Staples Center – Los Angeles, CA

Latest Results:

[table id=125 /]

Next: What's the Story?

May 8, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Clippers guard Austin Rivers (25) controls the ball against the Houston Rockets during the second half in game three of the second round of the NBA Playoffs. at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Story Lines:

The “Others”: While the Rockets seemed to find a way to limit DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin‘s production in the 2 losses it has been the production of the Clippers others such as J.J. Redick, Matt Barnes, Austin Rivers, Glen “Big Baby” Davis and Jamal Crawford who have out performed the others of the Rockets.

Specifically the production of Corey Brewer and Josh Smith needs to dramatically improve if the Rockets want a chance to win this series.

What Happened to James Harden?: Through the first 3 games of the series we’ve witnessed arguably one quarter of play by the bearded man resembling the MVP type performance he put on nightly in the regular season. Certainly credit goes to the Clippers’ Matt Barnes and JJ Redick‘s defense of him, but Harden seems content to play the role of facilitator.  Gone is the player who defied the leagues’ best defenses all season by aggressively taking the ball to the paint.

Sure, the whistles may be harder to come by in the post season, however he needs to force the zebra’s hands and repeatedly attack the paint. The Clippers aren’t as productive and their defense is impacted adversely with Jordan off the floor. Further, the Rockets have been successful in the paint, so a concerted effort by Harden to attack the basket and Jordan should be implemented. If Harden employs this strategy early in Game 4 the potential for the team to get Jordan in foul trouble would open up the paint while simultaneously allow them to mix up the offense behind the arc.

Where is the Rockets Defense? All season Houston was decimated by injury but maintained a top ten defense (for the majority of the season they were top 3), but they’ve plummeted to the bottom tier of playoff teams. We’ve seen windows of good defense but nothing sustained for a full game. As the series has progressed we’ve also seen the Rockets keep Griffin, Jordan and Jamal Crawford within acceptable ranges.

The problem has been two-fold: they haven’t sustained aggressive defense for more than a half and they haven’t been able to shut down the “others”.  If we take an optimistic view then we should expect a much more focused, aggressive effort sustained for an entire game. Nothing short of a full on physical effort will be acceptable since a loss would put them 2 games back and  1 loss away from elimination from the post season.

The Second All-Star Needs to Play Like One: Dwight Howard has looked solid through the playoffs and seems to resemble the player who once was earning Defensive Player of the Year Awards with little competition from his counterparts. The problem is he hasn’t sustained those efforts. As the series has progressed we’ve seen the Clippers dial up the physicality and now it’s time for Houston to respond.

Howard should be the player to lead that charge. Looking at how well Griffin performed with Paul we haven’t seen the same results from the Rockets side, rather it was more of a big Harden fourth quarter and the entire Rockets squad performing. It’s time Howard reminds viewers of his capabilities, and as they say “there’s no time like the present” for him to make that statement.

Next: The Numbers Don't Lie

May 4, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard (12) boxes out Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin (32) 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

 Season Stats:

[table id=112 /]

Playoff Stats:

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Next: Limping Forward?

May 8, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Clippers guard Chris Paul (3) before playing against the Houston Rockets in game three of the second round of the NBA Playoffs. at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Walking Wounded:

Los Angeles:

Chris Paul – CP3 suited up for Game 3, played 23 minutes and did look rusty which was understandable given he’d been off the court for so long. He couldn’t make his typical defensive cuts and his speed was slower, but he still managed to post 12 points, 3 rebounds,  7 assists,  2 steals and a turnover. Suffice to say Chris Paul at 70% is better than most point guards at 100%.  With just one day off between games it remains to be seen how such a quick turn around will affect Paul or whether coach Doc rivers will keep an even closer reign on his playing time.

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

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 8, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Houston Rockets guard Corey Brewer (33) plays for the ball against Los Angeles Clippers guard Austin Rivers (25) during the first half in game three of the second round of the NBA Playoffs. at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Bench Mob:

[table id=127 /]

Full bench stats at hoopsstats.com

Key Match-up:

As highlighted the Rockets have done a decent job since the second half of Game 2 of limiting Blake Griffin which can be tied to the additional defensive coverage by Trevor Ariza on him. The concern is ideally Terrence Jones and Josh Smith should be guarding him so Ariza could be freed up to cover JJ Redick or Austin Rivers (or whichever Clipper wing is shooting well).

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As I highlighted in the story lines it is imperative the Rockets 2 All-Stars take the lead championing the Rockets to victory.Through 12 quarters of the three games played in the series the Rockets have won just 5 quarters and 3 of those occurred Game 2.

We’ve seen both Howard and Harden take over for a half or a quarter but they haven’t played well for an entire game.Part of this problem stems from the lack of time the core players have spent on the court together and the fact they haven’t been able to log minutes facing different types of systems.

And the Clippers defense is much improved especially after gaining confidence in their first round win over the Spurs. Regardless, Sunday the team will be looking for their stars to lead the way.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Corey Brewer and Josh Smith need to find their games and show up tonight. The Rockets can’t afford for the Clippers’ reserves to out perform them once again.  Overall the Rockets have done well offensively (though they need to be careful to attack the paint especially during offensive lapses), but their defensive regression is concerning.

Howard specifically can lead the charge by coming out aggressive, take the fight to the Clippers and sustain his effort through the entire game. From a positive perspective if the Rockets rediscover their defense and garner a victory to tie the series they’ll own home court again and have the momentum returning to Houston for Game 5.

Next: Difference Makers

May 4, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin (32) drives against Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) 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

Season Leaders:

Clippers:

Rockets:

Individual Playoff Stat Leaders:

Points: James Harden – 27.4 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 13.5 and  DeAndre Jordan sits third with 13.3

Assists:   Shooting guard  James Harden ranks second in playoff assists with 8.6 assists per game (with John Wall not active Harden is the top assist getter) and Chris Paul is third with 7.8 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 71.4%,  Dwight Howard fell to 6th with a 60.0% field goal percent.

Blocks: Dwight Howard – continues to top playoff block artists with 3.3 blocks per game while  DeAndre Jordan fell to fourth with  2.4 blocks per game

Next: What's the Key?

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

Keys To Winning:

Through the first 3 Games of the series the Rockets have repeated the same mistakes:

  • Their defense has fallen well short of expectations. They’ve adjusted to specific issues and recognized success with those alterations, only to see other leaks present themselves.  Heading into Sunday night they need to maintain the successes they’ve recognized on Griffin and Jordan but find a way to slow Redick, Barnes, Crawford and Rivers. Additionally they’ll need to have a solid full game perimeter defensive effort.
  • Pace continues to be a key problem. When the Rockets push the pace they are successful, but they’ve suffered lapses where they allow the Clippers to dictate the pace which results in periods where the Clippers build huge leads.
  • Whether it’s Matt Barnes yelling at James Harden’s mother, Blake Griffin getting away with elbows while simultaneously drawing fouls, Austin Rivers mocking James Harden’s shooting swag or various Clippers getting into the Rockets heads it’s time Houston take the fight to the Clippers. I’m not saying they need to pull any more elbows to the backs of Griffin (aka Jason Terry), though I do think the Jet was sending his team a message. The Clippers are just as vulnerable as the Rockets when it comes to game psychology so it’s time they showcased that capacity.
  • To that end, James Harden has been taunted and goaded more than any of the Rockets, but hasn’t responded with his typical manner. He’s allowed all this gamesmanship to make him passive. It’s time he shows the Clippers when you mess the bull you get the horns!
  • Oddly the Houston reserves haven’t lived up to their billing while the Clippers have been over performing even while depleted. Entering Game 4 it does feel like the Rockets’ bench is due for a big game. To reiterate Brewer and Smith specifically need to produce a solid effort.
  • Is it even possible we are entering Game 4 and have yet to see a typical three point performance by the Rockets offensively or defensively? Surely tonight they’ll utilize pace, move the ball and finally have a standard Rockets’ result.

Next: And the magic eight ball predicts...

May 8, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13), forward Josh Smith (5) and center Dwight Howard (12) watch game action against the Los Angeles Clippers during the second half in game three of the second round of the NBA Playoffs. at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The Picks:

Game Four

It’s not hard to reason why the odds makers are taking Los Angeles by 7.5 points given how poorly the Rockets have played through the first 3 games.

The Editors Pick

Let’s be honest, we haven’t seen a complete typical Rockets game yet in the series. The scary part of that statement is Chris Paul has only played 23 minutes through the first 3 Games.

Entering Sunday night while it’s not technically a must win for the Rockets a loss would put them on the brink of elimination. As I’ve touched on throughout today’s analysis the Clippers are ahead in the series, but more importantly they’re winning the psychological battle as well. While I’m encouraging the Rockets to bring the fight to L.A. they need to also be cognizant of the zebra’s whistles and make sure their aggression is within the parameters of what they’ll allow without drawing  fouls. If the Rockets bring energy, aggression and physicality to the Clippers right from the tip and then sustain that effort throughout, they’ll more likely to get the benefit of the doubt from the officials.

FINALLY and perhaps most importantly this is  a note for James Harden… For many of us you did earn the MVP award, but many a player hasn’t won the coveted top spot when deserving. It’s time you put it behind you, move on and remember what you ultimately play for, which is a much bigger prize  called the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Oh and by the way, if you win that chances are it’ll come with you garnering the post season MVP.

Certainly there is a long road to reach that goal, but it’s time you show up and demonstrate why YOU ARE THE BEST PLAYER AND LEADER ON THE ROCKETS. And, if nothing else it is Mother’s Day so why not give Matt Barnes your own brand of payback by winning this one for your Mom!

Perhaps I’ve under estimated the Clippers completely and will have to eat crow if they take out the Rockets in 5 games. Regardless I remain optimistic this series is going the distance and I’m therefore predicting a Rockets win today.  The Clippers will be playing their 10th game in nineteen days all translating into a game every other day including traveling back and forth for half those games. Los Angeles is primarily a veteran team who rides their starters so I think we will witness the fatigue finally take it’s toll today.

Next: Dissecting the Dichotomy of MVP

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