It was a shoot-out from the very beginning as the first half saw the Rockets give up 78 points to a Clippers squad that hadn't scored that much in a half since 1998.
LA ran out to a quick start and kept the Rockets at arms-length all night, sustaining a 10+ point lead for a majority of the game. Although the Rockets bench helped fuel runs while the starters got their act together, LA simply out executed Houston at the end of the game when the Rockets finally got within striking distance.
Neither team was particularly interested in playing great defense, but Chris Pauls 23 point, 17 assist night was too much for a Rockets team mired by early foul trouble and turnovers (starting to sound all too familiar...)
Houston started the game going to Dwight early and often in the game, putting him in isolation and getting him in position to score a few buckets early on. Unfortunately, He quickly found himself in foul trouble, limiting him to just 6 and a half minutes in the first two periods.
Meanwhile, the Clippers offense went absolutely bananas.
They shot 70% in the first quarter and by the end of the half they had 19 points from former Dwight Howard teammate JJ Reddick, 14 points from Blake Griffin, Jared Dudley playing the best he's played all season, and a double-double for Chris Paul.
Their impressive ball movement was forcing us into uncomfortable rotations, leaving their shooters wide open for jumpshots for most of the half. Paul had 9 of his 11 assists in the first quarter.
Both teams were shooting incredibly well in the first two quarters, 59% for LA and 52% for Houston. The Rockets got off to a bit slower of a start, starting the game down 20-6 before the bench came in and got them back into the game. Omri Casspi led the team in scoring with 14 and Greg Smith led the team in rebounding with 6 (4 offensive).
Casspi, Smith, Brooks, and Garcia accounted for 33 of the Rockets 66 first half points.
Harden had a difficult time getting his shot going the entire game, even into the second half. He went 0-6 from beyond the arc and could only seem to find success when getting out in transition off of rebounds and turnovers where he could attack the rim in open space. I take it that his shooting touch did not catch the flight to LA.
Jeremy Lin was the best starter of the first half by far. He had 7 assists, had only 1 turnover, and was keeping the pace of our offense exactly where we needed it in this high scoring game. He put a team that was struggling to generate offense into positions to score and prevent the game from getting completely out of reach. He didn't turn the ball over in the second half and shot 50% from the floor.
Despite Lin's ballhandling, Houston still turned the ball over 10 times in the first half which offered increased possessions by a team already playing efficiently on offense.
The second half brought a more hard-nosed Dwight Howard offensively. Houston got the ball to him quite a bit down low and he was able to put some points on the board. The problem was that other than that, there was not much going on for Houston offensively. Casspi and the rest of the bench cooled off, and while Houston stayed afloat, the Clippers still had a clear advantage.
Aaron brooks started the fourth quarter playing great basketball to spark a run as he intercepting a lazy Clipper inbounds pass for a score and displaying his speed by blowing by the LA defense for an easy layup that cut the lead to 10 with about 5 minutes left to play.
From this point on, Chris Paul simply took the game over. He was knifing through the lane, making incredible moves seem easy, dishing the ball beautifully to his teammates for outside shots and cuts towards the rim, and two spectacular lob passes, the second of which prompted Doc Rivers to empty his bench.
This was a disappointing game to watch. The word ‘ugly' still does seem like an accurate description. The Rockets sloppy play lost them this game, along with their embarrassing defensive effort in the first half (the whole game, really, but 78? 78?!?).
This game had missed dunks, errant lob passes, and even 5 second inbounding violations, and first half turnovers that reached double digits. After that and a slow shooting start, we didn't have a chance. There simply is not enough offense in the world that can keep up with the kind of ball movement the Clippers displayed.
Two additional observations:
1) Omri Casspi is Legit
On his first night back after tweaking his ankle, Casspi led the team in scoring and racked up an impressive stat line in the process with 19 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists, and 2 steals on 50% shooting. He was the only Rocket who played more than 20 minutes and logged a positive +/- on the night.
He also just brought a ton of energy to the game at a time when Houston desperately needed it. Every time he touched the ball he seemed to be making quick, strong moves to the basket. He is sneakily athletic for his size and is emerging as quite the spark plug coming off the Rockets bench.
Four games in is early to start ascribing too much, but Omri is quickly rising on my list of key players on this roster - he has been quite impressive thus far.
2) Foul Trouble and Rotations
After Harden and Howard picked fouls early in the first and Jeremy picked up 3 in the first half (and a 4th in the 3rd quarter...and a 5th in the 4th quarter), you would expect the rotations to loosen up a bit more than they did this evening.
Houston's coaching staff kept with their 8 man rotation, subbing in Greg Smith only when necessary because of Howard's foul trouble.
Greg actually played incredibly well, grabbing offensive rebounds left and right, scoring in double digits in the process. He was a perfect 6 for 6 from the field and was still kept on a short leash by the coaching staff.
I don't think the tight rotation early on is necessarily a bad strategy from Houston's point of view. Tight rotations can help drive competition in practice and get a new, young starting unit more time on the floor early on in the season when the losses are a little less impactful on a nightly basis. Personally, I hope they find some time for these young big men to get on the floor, but I'm far from passing judgment on the coaching staff for racking up minutes quite yet.
I wouldn't say that Houston ‘failed' its first real Western conference test this season. I'd say it's more like submitting a paper to an editorial board and having it returned stating "revise and resubmit".
We may have lost, but it's not like the Clipper's defense really had any say in the matter. We were able to get in scoring position fairly easily. Even in our slump, we could at least salvage a few good looks at the rim, even if we missed.
LA is a team that the Rockets can beat, but not if Chris Paul gets 15+ assists and Jamal Crawford, Jared Dudley, and JJ Reddick combine for 63 points in a game. If we can put together a stretch of games where we defend the perimeter and close out better on shooters when rotating, I have confidence that Houston can win a playoff series.
Only time will tell.
All I know, based on this game, is that these two teams combine to put on stunning offensive scoring exhibitions.