With a thrilling Game 7 victory against the Spurs, the Clippers are rewarded with the daunting task of the rolling Houston Rockets. The Rockets went 2-2 against the Clippers during the regular season, but they are both completely different teams in the playoffs.
Regardless of both teams' changes, this series will likely be evenly matched, exciting and feisty.
The Rockets and Clippers have played a couple of classic regular season games. There have been photo finishes, spectacular plays, and flaring tempers. These are the two games in which that the Rockets came out on top.
Chris Paul, who pushed Tim Duncan one step closer to retirement (on one leg!), is a 6-foot question mark in this series. His apparent hamstring injury controls the fate of this series. After Game 7 of the Spurs-Clippers series, Doc Rivers was unsure about Paul's status for Game 1.
Both teams have a fair amount of veterans, but the Rockets have several players who have either been to the Finals or have won it. Dwight Howard has been to the finals with the Magic, Harden with the Thunder, Jason Terry with the Mavericks, and Trevor Ariza with the Lakers.
Terry, who has not only been in many big games, but is also a champion (so is Ariza), says that the Rockets' playoff experience will prove to be a huge advantage for Houston (via NBA.com).
"This next round is going to show how far we've come mentally. There's going to be some more tests. But the makeup of this team, the veteran leadership -- when we face adversity, we'll be able to push through it and continue to do the things we do well," said Terry
The Clippers do have some veterans, particularly coming off the bench (Big Baby, Turkoglu, Doc), but their leaders have not tasted any playoff success. As we all know, Chris Paul has never been out of the second round and ditto for Blake Griffin. Both tremendous players have reputations for shrinking in big moments, and regardless of the accuracy of those reputations, it's clear that the Rockets have the advantage in experience.
An area where the advantage could be exploited is in the fourth quarters of games. Chris Paul was amazing in the fourth quarter of Game 7 Saturday night, but he has also had costly turnovers and he wilted against the Thunder last year. Blake Griffin choked in Game 2 when he coughed up the ball with under a minute left.
The Rockets are comfortable down the stretch with many options. They can let Harden go to work at the top of the key, send him a screen, or run the 4/5 high post pick-and-roll with Smith and Howard, which has become one of the NBA's scariest play to defend.
The Power Forward By Committee
When playing Blake Griffin, it's important to show him as many different looks as possible. The Rockets can throw Terrence Jones, Josh Smith, Trevor Ariza, and even Howard or Capela for short stretches. That's a whole lot of bodies and a whole lot of fouls, which is also helpful if McHale decides to "Hack-a-big."
The Rockets should play physical defense against Griffin, unlike the Spurs, who gave him space to operate and fly through the lane. The Spurs let Griffin feel way too comfortable because they didn't rough him up enough. Expect Houston to do their best to prevent free rim runs for Blake.
This is the biggest one. The Rockets have one of the best benches in the league and the Clippers might have the very worst. Doc Rivers has no choice but to only play an 8 man rotation, which exhausts the starting five. While Austin Rivers, Glen Davis, and Jamal Crawford are the only reserves playing significant minutes for LA, the Rockets will show off Josh Smith, Corey Brewer, Clint Capela, and Pablo Prigioni.
The 5-man combination of Trevor Ariza, Corey Brewer, Dwight Howard, Pablo Prigioni, and Josh Smith outscored the Mavericks by 16 points per 100 possessions in 30 minutes played together. That unit is important because it gives Harden and Jason Terry a break, but remains effective. The Clippers must have either Griffin or Paul on the floor to be decent.
If you think the Rockets have any other glaring advantages versus the Clippers, feel free to connect with me in the comments section or on Twitter @DanEmerman_SBN.