If there was any question as to whether the Clippers are legitimate playoff contender prior to tonight's game rest assured any critic's suspicions have now been buried. L.A.'s ugly duckling has matured into a beautiful swan. The Clippers handily trounced the Rockets tonight in Houston and they did so in just twelve minutes. The Rockets have now lost four games in a row and what was once an awe inspiring offense is starting to look like a mirage. The Clips outscored the Rockets 32 to 18 in the third quarter and by the time Jamal Crawford (30 points) had begun a maddening scoring tear early in the fourth quarter the Rockets had already surrendered.
Eric Bledsoe was a more than adequate stop gap for Chris Paul while he rested his bruised knee. Bledsoe has slipped into this spotlight this season as one of the most promising point guard prospects in the league (this actually happened last summer) and tonight he scored 19 points (7-12, 7 rebounds, 5 assists) in a convincing fashion. If Chris Paul gets locked up long term for the Clips I fully expect some team to fork over a pretty penny in exchange for the budding young guard. Blake Griffin was the fulcrum of Los Angele's third quarter dominance and his 19 points and 8 rebounds were a not-so-friendly reminder that the rising star can do a bit more than just dunk. James Harden had a sound 23 point outing and kept his 20+ point game streak alive. Chandler Parsons had an an über efficient 17 points and Jeremy Lin contributed his first double double since Christmas day. The Rockets did not look as bad as they looked during the three game road trip that preceded tonight's loss but there was an abundance of turnovers and missed free throws that prevented any real progress. Houston turned the ball over 15 times and shot 56% from the charity stripe. Unsurprisingly, Houston's defense was nowhere to be found.
The first half of the game was an asymmetrically close event. There were some red flags in the first quarter (careless turnovers that turned into DeAndre Jordan dunks and Patrick Patterson's inability to contain Blake Griffin) but ultimately James Harden's authority to score cooed any concerns of inadequacy. Jeremy Lin was also impressive with smooth scoring and wise playmaking early on (Lin finished with only one turnover). During the second quarter, the game became a bit more physical. During one sequence Lamar Odom and Vinny Del Negro were thoroughly convinced that Omer Asik's hips had not lied during some off ball contact that sent a Clipper to the floor and both received technical fouls for their remarks. The game remained close despite an alarming failure to convert at the free throw line. Greg Smith, Chandler Parsons, and Marcus Morris (who did not start the game) all provided solid minutes.
The Clippers squad that fielded the court at the start of the second half was a completely different monster. What the Rockets were faced in from that point forward was an elite playoff bound team that had just turned the amp up to 11. Immediately following the start of the third quarter, the Rockets realized it was noticeably more difficult to penetrate the Clippers interior. A Blake Griffin centered offense and an iron-clad defense earned the Clips a 10-0 run and there was very little the Rockets were able to do about it.
What the Clippers were doing offensively was very simple:
- establish Blake Griffin in the low post where Patrick Patterson would to try to guard him
- have the perimeter players cut towards the basket
- Read defense and either: go up for post hook (and fight for any second chance points), dish to cutter, throw the ball out of a double team to a three point shooter
This worked well.
How McHale countered:
- Keep Patrick Patterson alone on Griffin
- allow him to establish position deep in the post
- when Griffin begins to try to score swarm him with two to three additional wing defenders and hope he doesn't grab any of his own missed shots or rebounds
This didn't work. The Clippers shot 63% in the third quarter and blew the lead wide open.
Greg Smith isn't the most polished defensive big in the league or even on this team but what he does have is a wide body and the kind of physique that is resistance to outside force. I would pay good money to watch Blake Griffin try to do what he was doing against Patrick Patterson with Greg Smith.
The remainder of the game was primarily a vintage Jamal Crawford shooting exposition. There was a brief Houston run sparked by Harden and Carlos Delfino that brought the deficit to 13 points but by that time the game had been long gone by that point.
In garbage time Kevin McHale threw rookie point guard Patrick Beverly to the wolves. Beverly was immediately asked to guard the red hot Crawford and during his first two NBA minutes he proceeded to strip Crawford, hit a three pointer, and grab an assist (not all during the same play). I'll be cautious to put too much weight behind a garbage time performance but Beverly played a kind of high impact defense that I haven't seen once from a Rocket this season. Let's hope it's a sign of things to come.
The Rockets take on the Mavericks tomorrow on national television. Tune in and watch the Rockets try to pull out of a bleak downward spiral.
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