After splitting the first two games of their second-round series with the Los Angeles Clippers at home, the Houston Rockets know that to make it to the Western Conference Finals, they have to take at least one game in Los Angeles, the first of which is tonight. Chris Paul is still questionable to play with his strained hamstring as of this morning, but his absence hasn't made life any easier for Houston so far.
The first six quarters of this series saw an undermanned Clippers team outworking and outplaying a listless, unfocused Rockets team, one that set a team playoff record with 24 turnovers in Game 1. Considering the kind of advantage they had in terms of both rest and health (yes, there are injured Rockets too, but none of them finished in the top 10 in MVP voting), the Rockets' showing in this series has been a massive disappointment, save for their second half in Game 2, in which their bench stepped up in the third quarter before James Harden finally took over in the fourth.
Harden was finally aggressive in driving to the hoop and getting to the free throw line, and he scored half of his 32 points in the quarter. It's too easy to say that he just woke up and started playing well after being an afterthough in the series to that point. The more likely explanation is that DeAndre Jordan sat out all but a minute of the fourth quarter with a combination of foul trouble and fear of Hack-a-Jordan, and his absence in the middle opened up the driving lanes Harden has been missing all series.
This is a problem, because the 25 minutes Jordan played were easily his fewest of the playoffs. The Rockets still haven't gotten hot from the outside (they were only 5-26 from three in Game 2), which meant that before Jordan left the floor, the only offense they were getting was on the fast break and with lobs to Dwight Howard. That's a fun way to play, but it won't win a playoff game.
The Rockets shooting 19 percent from behind the arc isn't likely to repeat itself, but Corey Brewer and Josh Smith aren't combining to shoot over 40 percent from behind the arc like they did in the Dallas series. Houston's just going to have to hope that if and when they land somewhere in the middle, it'll be enough.
Chris Paul's health aside, the biggest issue facing the Rockets in Game 3 is Blake Griffin. He's absolutely torched Terrence Jones and Josh Smith so far, and the only way the Rockets slowed him down in the second half was by going small and sticking Trevor Ariza on him in full ball denial mode, with Dwight Howard hanging around to prevent lobs over the top.
Trevor's been a beast all year on defense, but it's hard to believe he can guard Griffin, who outweighs Ariza by 50 pounds, for an entire game. It's just too much punishment, and it was frankly a surprise that it worked as long as it has. Plus, if CP3 does come back, he figured to be Ariza's assignment as well (unless McHale bets that Paul stays gimpy and gambles with Terry, Prigioni and/or Brewer staying with him). That conundrum speaks to how valuable he is to the Rockets, but it also means that at some point soon, the Rockets are going to have to pick their poison.
Josh Smith's performance so far in this series has been dreadful. He hasn't cracked 10 points or even 35 percent shooting overall in either game, he's 1-9 from three, and most surprisingly, he's been a sieve on defense. Smoove has all the physical tools needed to guard Blake Griffin as well as anyone in the NBA, but he's been at the forefront of the Rockets' energy and focus problems. If a 6'8" small forward like Ariza can guard Blake better than Smith can, that says more about Smith than it does about Ariza, no matter how good the latter is.
So the Rockets split the first two game of the Western Conference Semifinals due to poor energy, poor outside shooting and a mostly poor performance by James Harden. At least one of those things is bound to improve as the series goes on, but they're going to have to happen by the time they leave Los Angeles, because going back to Houston down 3-1 might be too much to overcome against a Clippers team that's clearly full of confidence.
P.S. -- Dwight Howard has still been great, even though DeAndre can jump over him consistently. Dwight, keep playing great.