The Back Story:
First meeting of the season. Rockets won the series 3 games to 1 last year.
The Big Picture:
The Clippers come into this game off of their most exciting win in recent memory. For three quarters against the Grizzlies they looked disinterested and lackluster, as indeed they have frequently this season. But for the final 4 minutes, they were a team possessed. A 33-7 fourth quarter, featuring a 22-0 run to close the game, gave them a much needed victory. Unfortunately, it may have come at a price. Eric Gordon tweaked his hamstring in the fourth and is considered a game time decision for this game. Gordon scored 29 points Sunday, and keyed the comeback. It was the first time he'd looked 100% since returning from an 8 game layoff with a groin injury. Given how badly the Clippers struggle without him, the team can ill-afford to have him miss more time. Of course, that may be the argument for holding him out of this game. Better to have him heal completely than to risk a more serious injury. If Gordon can't go, the Clippers will be back to relying on Baron Davis and Chris Kaman to carry them. Unfortunately, Kaman has struggled in three of the last four. Baron has been solid all year - though he's still not shooting a good percentage from the field.
I think of the Rockets as one great big test tube. When you look at a statistical rating system like Win Score or PER, there are always players that jump out as being scored too highly. And while you can make a case for one or two of these guys on a team, the trump card for most critics is to say "What would happen if you fielded a team of five Shane Battiers? You'd get killed." Of course, it never happened, so no one ever found out whether it's true or not. It never happened until now that is. With Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady injured - that's $40M of the Rockets $74M payroll - the team is made up of 'value' players. Guys who don't look particular impressive by some of the traditional measures, but who ostensibly are off the charts in Daryl Morey's super secret rating algorithms. So far the unavoidable experiment is going better for the Rockets than I would have thought - they're 9-8, including an impressive win over the Lakers in LA. But the conventional wisdom would hold (and I have to agree in this case) that you need a better number one option than Trevor Ariza. Looking at the numbers, it's actually pretty hard to figure how the Rockets have a winning record - their effective field goal percentage on the season is 49%, while they're allowing their opponents a .511 eFG%. But they don't turn the ball over much, and they get a LOT of offensive rebounds (third best percentage in the league) which all adds up to more possessions for them. So taking care of the ball and boxing out will be keys for the Clippers tonight. Houston's starting power forward and third leading scorer, Luis Scola, is likely out of this game after being scratched in the eye on Sunday in Oklahoma City.
- Momentum. Wouldn't it be great if the Clippers opened this game the way they closed the last one?
- Smoke and mirrors. I'm not completely convinced that Morey has any new system to speak of. Or rather, I don't really see much evidence of it. The simple fact of the matter is, much of what he's done during his tenure (he became assistant GM in April 2006 and GM in May 2007) would appear to me to be based on good old fashioned talent evaluation, and not on computer algoritms. Consider this: of the nine players currently in the Houston rotation, six of them were rookies for the Rockets. It's hard enough making sense of the data from NBA games - are we to believe that Morey's algorithms are so good that he can identify Luis Scola and David Andersen from their Spanish League stats, and Aaron Brooks, Chase Budinger and Carl Landry from their NCAA stats, against such variable competition? Maybe I'm missing something, but it looks to me like the Rockets have been doing the good old fashioned job of evaluating talent to pick in the draft. And they appear to have done well at that.
- ...and Rick Adelman can coach. I don't think Adelman has gotten enough credit for what he's done with this team. Obviously they're exceeding most expectations this season. In year's past, they've remained competitive during long stretches without one or both of their injury-prone superstars. Clips Nation is well-acquainted with the difficulties presented when a team suffers injuries to key players. Adelman's Rockets continue to perform at a top level no matter who they put on the floor. Kudos to him.
- Never to early to think playoffs. Of course, it's way too early to think about the playoffs, but.... The Rockets are currently tied for the eighth spot - though of course they were widely considered to be the playoff team most likely to drop out of the picture. If the Clippers still entertain thoughts of the playoffs, they have to win these kinds of games - at home against a division rival that figures to be competing for the 7th and 8th spots.
- Rebounding. As I mentioned above, the Rockets are third in the league in offensive rebound percentage. Memphis is first, Detroit is second. These happen to be the Clippers last two opponents. They did a terrible job keeping Detroit off the offensive glass, but won anyway. They did much better against Memphis - partly because they allowed the Grizzlies to make almost everything they shot through three periods before waking up. The Clippers need to do a job on their defensive glass and limit the number of chances Houston gets.
- Kaman. The Rockets starting center is Chuck Hayes, who is listed at 6'6". Now, I realize he's in there for his defense. But he's giving away like 6 inches to Kaman. It sure seems like Chris out to be able to either face him up and shoot over him, or back him down and score with the jump hook in close. In his last four games Kaman has thrice been ice cold (combined 12 for 49 vs. MIN, IND and MEM), and once been red hot (11 for 13 vs. DET). We could really use one of those red hot games.
- Point guard matchup. If you think Kaman is a lot bigger than Hayes, what until you see Baron Davis next to Aaron Brooks. Expect the Clippers to post Baron against the diminutive Brooks early and often. Of course on the other end, Brooks may give Baron trouble with his crazy quickness. The point guard that successfully puts his counterpart into difficulty in this game gives his team a decided advantage.
- Defending the three. The Rockets are third in the NBA in three point attempts. Ariza, Brooks, Battier and Chase Budinger are the main gunners. If you can keep Houston quiet from deep, they have difficulty winning games.
- Ariza. Trevor Ariza may prove the old adage - anybody can be a top scorer if they shoot enough. Ariza is leading the Rockets in scoring at 18.2 points per game - more than double his prior career high for a season. But he's done it while shooting a dismal 38% - far and away his career low.
- Carl Landry. The Clippers have for the last few seasons struggled to defend the undersized, high energy power forwards off the bench like Paul Millsap and Craig Smith. The Rockets Carl Landry fits that bill, and torched the Clippers for 20 points in 30 minutes in a game last November. If Scola is unable to play tonight, Landry will step into the starting lineup. At any rate, he'll definitely be a big part of the game plan going in. Hopefully the Clippers can handle him a little better given the chance to prepare for him.
Wait a minute, I just lit a rocket... Rockets explode!
- Get the Rockets perspective at The Dream Shake.