We wanted the Clippers in Round 2, and we got them.
The Rockets' Western Conference semifinals series begins tonight in Houston, with L.A.'s Point God Chris Paul questionable to play with a hamstring injury he sustained while dragging L.A. past the Spurs. Rockets fans were more scared of the Spurs because of Kawhi Leonard's ability to contain James Harden, in addition to their general Spurs-iness, but make no mistake, the Clippers will not be an easy foe. Let's break down the matchup that was even (2-2) in the regular season.
When The Clippers Have The Ball
So much is up in the air regarding Chris Paul's injury. When he's healthy, he's the best point guard in the game, and he ran an offense that led the league in efficiency in the regular season, largely due to his mind-boggling lack of turnovers. CP3 led the NBA in assist-to-turnover ratio (as did the Clippers), with 4 dimes for every giveaway. He's also a dangerous scorer from everywhere on the court, as evidenced by his shot chart from the regular season:
All of the attention that he draws with the ball in his hands creates open looks for everyone on the floor. The Clippers' starting lineup boasts one of the most dangerous shooters in the league in J.J. Redick, Blake Griffin (who needs no introduction), dunk machine DeAndre Jordan, and Matt Barnes, their fifth option who still shot 35 percent from beyond the arc in their first-round series.
If Paul is healthy, the Rockets will need to be otherworldly on defense to slow down the Clippers' offense.
The last time the Rockets faced L.A., Patrick Beverley guarded CP3 and guarded him well. That was nice. More helpful in predicting how Houston will guard Paul was the game before, their Feb. 25 win at home with Beverley sidelined.
In the first half, Jason Terry, Pablo Prigioni and Corey Brewer took turns getting roasted by Paul, so Trevor Ariza took over those duties in the second half and did a good job. This clip is from the Beverley game, but it still illustrates what Ariza can bring to the table:
He's the only Rocket capable of fighting through screens well enough to allow Rockets' big men to drop into the paint on a pick-and-roll, which is absolutely crucial to preventing easy buckets for Griffin and Jordan. When Ariza was on the bench, the Rockets were forced to switch, which allowed CP3 to burn big men with jumpers and drives.
If Paul's hamstring slows him up enough to allow smaller Rockets guards to stay with him a little better, that frees up Ariza to guard Redick and, you guessed it, fight over screens to prevent him from raining threes. Of course, that doesn't take care of the other dominant offensive force for L.A.
Terrence Jones did an excellent job guarding Dirk Nowitzki in Round 1, but Blake Griffin is on another level. Dwight Howard will almost certainly be forced to stick to DeAndre when they share the floor to prevent the offensive rebounds and lobs that could kill the Rockets. T-Jones has gotten stronger, and he's shown excellent shot-blocking ability (something which Blake is vulnerable to when he forces shots), but if he can't hold his own, he won't be able to stay on the floor for very long.
Josh Smith is actually fairly well-suited to guard Blake (as far as anyone is), but he can't play 48 minutes, and if he shares the floor with Harden and Howard a ton, you better believe the Clippers will coax him into shooting a lot from the outside. But we'll get to the Rockets' offense in a second.
Kevin McHale largely hid James Harden on Matt Barnes in their previous encounters, which should be fine as long as Harden stays focused and doesn't leave Barnes open in the corner. The only other threat will be Jamal Crawford, who presents a unique set of problems. All manner of Rockets have guarded him (since his minutes tend to be staggered between reserves and starters), but he can make contested shots better than nearly anyone in the NBA when he's on. He could also go ice cold, so he's a complete wild card.
When the Rockets have the ball
James Harden didn't shoot better than 43 percent in any of the Rockets' games against the Clippers, who have given him lots of problems historically. The difference between his good games and his bad ones against L.A. this season have been how often he's gotten to the line -- 30 times between the two wins, 11 between the two losses.
Let's not blame the officials for this one, since there's a large man named DeAndre who serves as a deterrent against drives to the basket. Harden only attempted five shots from within four feet all season against the Clippers, and while missed shots that lead to free throws don't count towards attempts, that number is still awfully low -- he attempted 14 against Dallas in Round 1, and Tyson Chandler is no slouch.
J.J. Redick will guard Harden for the most part, and although he works his tail off, Harden can beat him one-on-one with relative ease. If Jordan can avoid foul trouble, however, Harden will be doing a lot more jump shooting than the Rockets will be comfortable with.
The Rockets' best non-Harden offense in the playoffs has been their big-big passing, but the Clippers are much better equipped to handle that than the Mavericks were. Blake Griffin is not an elite defender, but he's miles better than Dirk, and if he can be quick enough to stay with Josh Smith and Terrence Jones if they're pick-and-roll ball handlers, then DeAndre can hang back to discourage lobs to Dwight.
As you can see, DeAndre lies at the heart of the Rockets' problems. I wouldn't be surprised to see a cat-and-mouse game between McHale and Rivers in terms of big man substitutions, with McHale trying to hammer the Clippers inside every time Glen Davis steps on the court.
Of course, there's another way to mitigate Jordan's impact on defense, and that's on the fast break. When Corey Brewer and Josh Smith enter the game together, we hope to see a lot of this (minus the extracurriculars):
Brewer was phenomenal in the first round, averaging 14 points in 25 minutes over the five games. He won't shoot 53 percent from behind the arc like he did in Round 1, but as long as he keeps driving and running, he'll be incredibly valuable.
Both he and Smoove (39 percent in Round 1) figure to cool off from the outside, which means that someone else will have to step up. Harden's an obvious candidate, but as discussed above, he might be in for another tough series. So who's it gonna be?
Trevor Ariza has to be the answer. He was great on defense (as usual) against the Mavericks, but he only averaged 8 points on 23 percent shooting from behind the arc. After a couple of games, it seemed clear that he had lost confidence on his shot, driving more than normally and shooting (gasp) mid-range jumpers. That's especially worrying because the Mavs often hid Monta Ellis or JJ Barea on him, and he couldn't capitalize. But it's not all bad news.
Matt Barnes, who will be guarding Ariza for the most part, is a much better defender than Ellis or Barea. But he is also a nearly hyperactive help defender (and Dwight will certainly draw help), which should free up Ariza for three-pointers (hopefully from the corners). He's bound to improve from last series, when he shot an abysmal 25 percent when left wide open (which NBA.com's player tracking data lists as with no defender within six feet).
Terrence Jones also has a tougher matchup ahead of him than in the first round, but from what I've seen, it never seems to matter who's guarding him -- he either drives with confidence and knocks down a couple shots, or he disappears regardless. He's obviously going to have to show up.
Lastly, Dwight Howard has looked fantastic in the playoffs so far, avoiding too many wasted possessions on post-ups and wreaking havoc on the pick-and-roll. He didn't face the Clippers at all this season, but we still have some idea of what he'll be doing, which is more of the same of what we saw in Round 1.
I wouldn't be surprised to see Dwight's numbers slip this series, but that doesn't mean he'll necessarily impact the game less. Jordan affects so much of what the Rockets do offensively that one of Dwight's biggest jobs will be to set tons of high screens to draw DeAndre away from the paint and force him into committing on defense. He's going to have a hell of a fight on his hands on the offensive glass, but hopefully he doesn't fixate too much on that and allow Jordan to hang in the paint at all times.
The X-Factor, and who has the edge
Besides the Warriors, the Clippers might have the best starting five in the NBA. That's why the Rockets are going to have to make hay against their shallow-as-hell bench. Glen Davis is the only backup big Doc Rivers plays with any frequency, and he's already banged up with a sprained ankle. Austin Rivers caught fire for one game, but besides that he's a nothing on offense. Jamal Crawford is scary, but he'll give back on defense some of what he gets on offense. This is the only area in which the Rockets have a clear edge.
The other side of this is the heavy minutes burden Rivers is placing on his starters, especially Blake Griffin, who averaged 41 minutes in seven games of physical action, sometimes against Tim Duncan. Rivers might be inclined to give his bench a little more run in this series, since the Rockets' bench isn't quite as dangerous as San Antonio's. But more realistically, he'll keep riding his starting five. Houston will have to hope they tire out over a long series (and it will probably be a long series).
Griffin and Paul are the Clips' two best players, and they match up against the Rockets' two weakest positions. That's the scariest part of this matchup, but CP3's hamstring and Blake's minutes load could go a long way towards diminishing that fear. Every time they hit the bench (this goes for DeAndre too), the Rockets will have to punish them -- and they have the horses to do it.
If the Clippers can't be at full strength over the course of Round 2, the advantage clearly swings to the Rockets. If they stay on the court, and keep playing at a high level, they present schematic issues the Rockets haven't proven able to handle. Considering that L.A. is already showing signs of wear and tear, I'd have to say the former scenario is more likely.