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NBA Playoffs: Houston Rockets vs. L.A. Clippers

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

Tue May 12, 9:30 PM EST – TNT, C+D

Toyota Center – Houston, TX

Latest Results:

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Next: What's the Story?

May 10, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin (32) is fouled by Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard (12) in game three of the second round of the NBA Playoffs at Staples Center. The Clippers defeated the Rockets 128-95 to take a 3-1 lead. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Story Lines:

Can Rockets Be Clutch in Clutch City?

With the teams back in Houston and following one of the worst games in Rockets history can they use the crowd known as Clutch City to motivate their effort and push the series back to Los Angeles? The Rockets can pull on one stat to aid them in this effort: they didn’t lose 3 games in a row the entire season.  What might be considered even more embarrassing then the weekend treatment they got in Los Angeles is performing the same way at home. It’s pretty much a guarantee if they play with the same devil may care attitude they’ll get booed out of the building.

Who Is This Rockets Team?

I’ve kept wondering what happened to the Rockets since this series started. Did the extra time off between series serve to make them lose their edge? Did the Rockets completely underestimate the Clippers without Chris Paul or have they simply lost their confidence? The answer is probably a combination of all these things, however don’t discount the loss of Patrick Beverley and Donatas Motiejunas as major portions of the missing puzzle.

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Bench Is Missing In Action:

While Corey Brewer is definitely trying defensively, he’s been in a shooting funk.  Of graver concern is how poorly Josh Smith has played after being a huge factor in round one.

Blake Griffin is lighting up both Terrence Jones and Josh Smith which once again points to the absence of Donatas Motiejunas as a factor in their performance.

Furthermore, with Patrick Beverley out (a separate issue altogether regarding the defensive drop, especially positionally versus Chris Paul) it’s meant Jason Terry has had to move to a starting role.

Perhaps this has thrown off the chemistry just enough to explain the sudden drop off, but the Rockets’ reserves need to figure something out and quickly.

With contracts looming for both Brewer and Smith one would think they would be producing strong efforts, but Smith in particular looks like he doesn’t even care when he’s on the floor. If he wants to remain in Houston (something he’s alluded to) he’ll need to turn his game around and help get the Rockets back in this series.

When Will Rockets Franchise Stars Show Up?

Through four games the Rockets have produced just 4 winning quarters. Much of that can be attributed to the Rockets two stars James Harden and Dwight Howard . Though Harden is posting decent series numbers other than the fourth quarter of Game 2, he hasn’t come close to being the player who garnered strong MVP consideration.

He’s played the role of facilitator well, but the Rockets played all year and won by following Harden’s aggressiveness. That identity has disappeared and perhaps it’s due to the team being lost without his leadership on the court. In addition, he’s not taking enough shots which seems to speak to his passive approach.

Howard who has looked healthy and started the series well has been outplayed badly on the road. In Game 4, he got in early foul trouble on stupid fouls and ended up forcing McHale to utilize the Hack-A-Jordan strategy just to remain in the game. In total Howard played only 18 minutes before fouling out.  He posted 7 points, 6 rebounds and was a team worst minus -28.

Has McHale Lost the Team?

When the Rockets came out rusty in Game 1, it was easy to right off the loss to the long lay off and though they won Game 2, they could easily have lost if not for an above average fourth quarter by Harden. Then when the team hit the road the thought was they would rediscover their flow, but instead what we got was back to back losses, or rather consecutive blowouts of 25 and 33 points. Post game comments by Trevor Ariza and James Harden regarding the Hack-A-Jordan onslaught definitely indicates they aren’t in favor of the strategy.

Yet the main issue is defense. This team was a top 5 defensive team for most of the regular season while decimated by injury so this sudden drop off is baffling. It begs the question: has head coach Kevin McHale lost the team? They aren’t just losing, their getting embarrassed and the squad isn’t doing fundamental things like pressuring injured guard Chris Paul, blocking out or getting back in transition. The only player I’ve seen play hard consistently on defense is Ariza which means either the other players don’t care or are sending a message to GM Daryl Morey that it’s time for a change.

Next: The Numbers Don't Lie

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

 Season Stats:

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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:

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

Series injury focus was CP3, but after back-to-back +20 point losses maybe it should be about Patrick #Beverley & Donatas #Motiejunas

— Space City Scoop (@SpaceCity_Scoop) May 12, 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 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:

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Full bench stats at hoopsstats.com

Of note: as per Inside the NBA: the Clippers’ bench has seen a resurgence vs Houston they were missing in the first round against San Antonio. Versus the Spurs the LAC bench was -143, they shot 22.3 points per game and shot 40% from the field. Through 4 games against Houston the point differential is +45, points are 36.3 per game and they’re shooting 45%

Key Match-up:

The reserves as a whole should be making a difference in this series and they simply aren’t. In fact, it’s hard to isolate a position that the Clippers haven’t dominated. Even in the Game 2 victory, Houston was lucky to win.

Given the lack of production across the board it’s hard to pin point just one area that’s an issue, but a good start would be for the 2 Houston All-Stars. Tonight they need  to bring their A games to the court and challenge their team to play solid defense. At the very least, anything less than a focused, energetic defensive effort will be unacceptable.

While I’m calling out the 2 leaders to perform, the most important thing Harden and Howard can do is to show leadership via their decision making whether it be by not drawing stupid fouls, playing aggressive defense or just by being more assertive offensively. At the end of the day Harden doesn’t want to carry a tag of being a playoff bust so he needs to channel his inner warrior and take back control of this team.

Next: Difference Makers

May 4, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin (32) takes a rest during Houston Rockets fouls shot 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 – 26.7 points per game, third overall, second of remaining players in post season

Rebounds:– DeAndre Jordan jumped to first following Game 4 with 13.6 rebounds per game Blake Griffin is second with 13.0 and   Dwight Howard  dropped to third with 12.8

Assists:   Shooting guard  James Harden ranks second in playoff assists with 8.3 assists per game (with John Wall not active Harden is the top assist getter) and Chris Paul is third with 8.2 assists per game.

Field Goal Percent:  DeAndre Jordan – remains first with a gawdy 73.0%,  Dwight Howard fell to 7th with a 58.8% field goal percent.

Blocks: Dwight Howard – dropped to second with 2.9 blocks per game while  DeAndre Jordan fell from fourth to sixth with  2.3 blocks per game

Next: What's the Key?

May 10, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) is defended by Los Angeles Clippers guard J.J. Redick (4) in game three of the second round of the NBA Playoffs. at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Keys To Winning:

  • Play with pride:  It appeared in both weekend games that the Rockets didn’t care. Their effort on defense was missing and they repeatedly stopped moving the ball choosing instead to utilize isolation plays. This team needs to play like a team and replicate the things that made them successful all season. They’ve been whipped by the Clippers and while they’ve been dealt more than ample motivation to inspire them to respond they’ve literally dealt with it by either completely ignoring it or by making poor foul decisions. In front of their home crowd let’s hope the Rockets produce an effort worthy of Clutch City.
  • Their defense has fallen well short of expectations. Initially it appeared like their adjustments were going to produce results, but after the weekend blow outs they need to start fresh. Heading into Tuesday night I think it’s fair to say Griffin can’t be stopped, but a better effort is required on him. To aid in this success a good start would be to pressure Chris Paul so they limit his ability to get Griffin and Jordan open shots. Another key area they need to focus on is limiting everyone else outside of the big 3. It’s one thing to allow Griffin, Paul and Jordan  to produce, but there’s no way they can succeed if they don’t stop Redick, Barnes, Crawford and Rivers.
  • If James Harden wants to bury the demons that have haunted him in terms of his post season disappearances he needs to make a statement tonight.  Though his stats are on par (and in some cases better) with the regular season, the difference is the timing of his production as much of it  occurs in the first half or after the game is well out of reach. Throughout the season it was Harden who led the team to victories, but that aggressive nature has been missing. Credit JJ Redick and Matt Barnes, however the one player stopping James Harden is Harden himself. For the team to get back on track they need the MVB to play like an MVP.  We’ll find out what both Harden and the Rockets are made of tonight. A failure to appear seems unlikely, but then again I’m still searching to figure out who these post season Rockets are.
  • Stop the long scoring gaps: In each of the Rockets loses they’ve suffered extended periods of no scoring and they’ve completely imploded in the second halves.
  • The bench really needs to step up and play with energy and aggression. To reiterate Brewer and Smith specifically need to produce a solid effort.

Next: And the magic eight ball predicts...

May 10, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (center) reacts in the fourth quarter against the Los Angeles Clippers in game three of the second round of the NBA Playoffs at Staples Center. The Clippers defeated the Rockets 128-95 to take a 3-1 lead. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Picks:

Game Five

After back to back sound beatings at the hands of the Clippers it’s understandable Los Angeles is favored by 3 points.

The Editors Pick

Let’s be honest, we haven’t seen a complete typical Rockets game yet in the series. Through 4 games Chris Paul has played a measly 49 minutes and James Harden has been a shadow of the man who garnered well deserved MVP consideration throughout the season. Is he simply a great regular season player and not capable of taking the next step? Surely Howard should be shouldering part of the responsibility, but he’s been playing worse than Harden.

Watching the past 2 games has been agony, strike that watching this entire series has been beyond brutal   The Rockets team who repeatedly won games in spite of being written off would always rise to the challenge in spite of what the pundits and critics said.  Yet, this team doesn’t look remotely close to that squad.

Here’s the thing, I said all season the Clippers were over rated and I’m still not certain they aren’t. The problem is with Houston seemingly having lost their identity it’s hard to feel confident entering tonight’s Game 5. Still, the fact they haven’t lost 3 in a row all season is something to draw from and as Kenny the Jet Smith said he doubted the Rockets would suffer a third straight loss in Clutch City.

With Houston performing so poorly it’s safe to say while they were able to get past a injury depleted Mavericks squad they are sorely missing the services of  Beverley and Motiejunas in this series. Facing a top notch point guard and power forward has made that abundantly clear. Still, there are a number of solid defenders on the team who aren’t making fundamental defensive plays or playing with energy, let alone effort. Having stated that, I also believe the humbling experiences in L.A. coupled with their competitive  pride should result in the Rockets summoning their best to garner a win.

Besides I predicted the series would go seven so I’ll stubbornly stick to my initial projection and call for a home victory tonight: Rockets by 5.

Check back with us post game for the player grades and tomorrow morning for what will either be a post game analysis or the start of the inevitable obituary on a positive season gone awry.

Next: Dissecting the Dichotomy of MVP

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