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Clippers-Rockets preview: Will Paul play? Will it matter?

The Clippers may be without Chris Paul for the second straight game as he deals with a bruised knee cap, but it may not matter. L.A. took care of Memphis on the road without Paul, and will try to do the same if necessary in Houston against James Harden and the Rockets.

2012/2013 NBA Regular Season

January 15th, 2013, 5:00 PM
Toyota Center
Prime Ticket, KFWB 980 AM
Buy Clippers Tickets
Probable Starters
Eric Bledsoe PG Jeremy Lin
Willie Green SG James Harden
Caron Butler SF Chandler Parsons
Blake Griffin PF Marcus Morris
DeAndre Jordan C Omer Asik
Advanced Stats through games of Jan. 14
91.8 (11th of 30) Pace 96.9 (1st of 30)
110.5 (4th of 30) ORtg 107.9 (9th of 30)
100.8 (3rd of 30) DRtg 105.8 (16th of 30)
Chris Paul (knee) GTD
Royce White (anxiety) suspended
Chauncey Billups (ankle) out

Trey Thompkins (knee) out

The Back Story:

First meeting of the season. The Clippers swept all three meetings with the Rockets last season.

The Big Picture:

The Clippers found out a couple hours before their game in Memphis that they would be without their point guard and leader Chris Paul, but it hardly mattered as L.A. blew out the Grizzlies. The Clippers have established themselves as one of the deepest rosters in the league and that depth paid huge dividends last night as Eric Bledsoe stepped into the starting point guard role and had a big game. Perhaps more impressive, the second unit, playing without their spark plug Bledsoe, was still a huge difference maker for the team as Grant Hill made big contributions in only his second game of the season. Paul is listed as day to day at this point, but after the team played so well without him last night, it's hard to imagine that the Clippers would rush him back onto the court for this one. Paul's knee is sore and swollen from a collision with J.J. Redick late in Saturday's loss to Orlando, and it just makes sense for him to rest the knee rather than risk a lingering injury. It was a team dismantling of the Grizzlies, which is nice since the Clippers have to play again today -- no starter played more than 29 minutes and Lamar Odom's team high 33 minutes were just part of his ongoing exercise program since that's how he gets in shape. The Clippers might need a big game from Blake Griffin in this one, and it could happen as it's hard to see anyone on the Rockets who can handle him. Marcus Morris? Patrick Patterson? Omer Asik? We'll see. Transition defense will be a key for the Clippers, as the Rockets love to run and thrive in the open court. To the extent that the Clippers can turn this into a half court game they can improve their chances for a win.

The Antagonist:

The Rockets are one of the surprise teams in the West. When they traded for James Harden prior to the season starting, everyone knew he was a good player and perhaps someone to build around, but the Rockets on paper appeared to be still a few pieces away from being a playoff team in the hyper-competitive west. Houston has benefited from the fall of the Lakers certainly, but they are playing like a solid seven seed right now. Of course, that seven seed will likely buy them an early playoff exit, quite possibly at the hands of the Clippers. But that's OK for the Rockets, who are the NBA's youngest team and have most of their players on very cap friendly contracts. Harden has responded incredibly well to his new superstar role -- last year's Sixth Man Award winner is playing over 38 minutes per game and is fourth in the league in scoring at 26.5 points per game. The Rockets have the highest scoring average in the league and play at the fastest pace: more than any other team, these guys are dedicated to fast break basketball.

The Subplots

  • Comparison of key metrics. The Rockets play at the fastest pace in the league and it's not particularly close. Houston creates about two more possessions per game than any other team in the league, which may not seem like a lot, but you have to remember that there are two teams in every game so you're always working against your opponent to create the pace you want.
  • From sixth man to THE man. James Harden has successfully made a transition that has eluded many other players, going from sixth man to main man. Interestingly, the Rockets failed miserably with this very thing a few years back with Trevor Ariza, but then again, that was Trevor Ariza. Likewise Carl Landry was a disappointment in Sacramento when he was asked to start and shoulder a more significant portion of the scoring load. Some players are best suited to spot duty, can be effective and efficient in small doses, but don't scale to significantly more minutes and touches. Having said that, it was pretty obvious that Harden could. Although he did play with Durant and Westbrook in crunch time in Oklahoma City, his primary role with the Thunder was to carry the second unit while the other stars rested, and he often handled the ball even when the others were on the floor. His shooting numbers are down across the board with more attempts this season -- which was almost inevitable as he was unsustainably good in OKC -- but he's still very efficient for a high volume scorer. Houston bet their future on the premise that he was a star to build around, and it looks like they were right.
  • Last West foe. The Rockets are the only team in the West that the Clippers have yet to play after 38 games. So that's obviously, really, really interesting and that's why I mention it here. Go on, impress your friends with that tidbit. I don't mind.
  • 30 wins. The Clippers next win will be their 30th this season, and we're still three games short of the season's midpoint. In franchise history (going back to Buffalo) there have been 20 teams that did not manage to win 30 games on the season. Since moving to L.A. in 1984, 14 Clippers teams won fewer than 30 games.
  • The century mark. The Rockets are 17-7 on the season when they score over 100 points. They are 4-14 4-10 when held under 100, with two of those wins from way back in November before they fully committed to the running game. They're the league's highest scoring team so it won't necessarily be easy to do, but holding them under 100 points is almost certainly going to result in a win. FWIW, the Clippers have actually gone over 100 more times than the Rockets this season, and are 21-4 when they do so.
  • Surprisingly inefficient. Beginning with the standard caveat that PER is an imperfect metric, the individual players on the Rockets have not been particularly good this season. Playing in an uptempo offense that should in theory inflate PERs and on a team that is four games above .500, this is surprising. Of the eight Rockets averaging more than 15 minutes per game, only Harden has an even slightly above average PER. The league average for PER is pegged to 15, Harden is at 23.3, Patrick Patterson is at 15.4 and the next six are between 12 and 15. By contrast the Clippers have six rotation players over 16, not including Grant Hill. For a guy like Omer Asik who rarely shoots, the mediocre 14.7 PER is understandable. For Jeremy Lin, it means he's not scoring efficiently.
  • PER case study. This started out as a bullet here, but I decided it needed it's own post. Unfortunately, it's not done yet, but soon you'll have something interesting to read about James Harden and PER, so you have that to look forward to. I know Erik O is excited. Anyone else?
  • The Lin experience. The Rockets seem to be settling in to a tenuous solution with their backcourt, but there are some obvious issues with Lin and Harden sharing the ball. Things went Linsane in New York when Jeremy was allowed to dominate the ball, to probe and probe and probe until he found a shot or a pass. Lin's usage in New York was 28%, and his PER was almost 20. His usage in Houston is down below 20, and his PER is down to 14. Kevin McHale tries to manage the basic incompatibility by making sure Lin is in the game whenever Harden rests so that he can dominate the ball on those possessions, but with Harden averaging over 38 minutes per game, fifth most in the league, that doesn't leave a lot of time for Lin. Obviously the Rockets traded for Harden after they'd already signed Lin, but it does not look like a good fit. If you're asking Jeremy Lin to play off the ball, what is he bringing to the table?
  • Defending Harden. Stopping the Rockets is about stopping Harden, who is their first, second and third option on offense. He's a big guard who can get to the rim with his unorthodox Euro-step and can also drain shots on the perimeter. In the starting lineup Willie Green will get the assignment -- Willie will work hard, but he's got about as much chance of topping Harden as I do. Fortunately, the Clippers have both Matt Barnes and now Grant Hill as viable options to threw at Harden. Look for Del Negro make an early move to get Barnes in the game.
  • Lin vs. Paul in All Star voting. When Jeremy Lin was signed by the Rockets I assumed it meant that Chris Paul would no longer start in the NBA All Star game. Paul is easily the best guard in the NBA and obviously deserving of the start, but Kobe Bryant will always get more votes than Paul in a popularity contest (he'd also get more votes in an unpopularity contest of course) and then there's the small matter of China. Lin was born in the U.S. to Taiwanese parents, but playing in Yao Ming's adopted U.S. home, it seemed inevitable that Lin would ride a wave of Chinese internet voting into the starting lineup. So far Paul has held him off for the second guard spot -- but it's close, obviously a lot closer than it should be. Voting is now closed and we'll find out Thursday night who the starters are -- if Lin gets in on a last-minute push will that be the final injustice that gets the NBA to change the rules?
  • Best bargain in the league? You can make a pretty good case that Chandler Parsons is the best bargain in the NBA right now. It's tough to compare him to a star lottery pick like Kyrie Irving or Damian Lillard, putting up big numbers on a rookie contract. And then there are guys like Matt Barnes, providing incredible productivity on a veteran minimum deal. But Parsons was a second round pick last year (he was taken one pick after the Clippers selected Trey Thompkins, fyi) and all he's done is start 94 of 104 games for the Rockets. He's skilled and athletic, makes 34% of his threes and is a terrific perimeter defender. And here's the kicker. The Rockets signed him for four years at a bargain price, less the a million per season. Barnes will make more next season, with the Clippers or elsewhere, but Parsons is locked up. That's less a million a year for your starting small forward FOR FOUR YEARS. So yeah, best bargain in the league.
  • Playmakers. This Clippers team has been incredible this season, but we got a glimpse in Memphis last night of how much better than can be. The Clippers as a team have long suffered from a lack of playmakers. A guy like Corey Maggette could score, he could get to the line, but don't ask him to find an open teammate or even make an entry pass for that matter. Suddenly the Clippers have playmakers everywhere you look. Lamar Odom and Grant Hill are great veterans for lots of reason, but perhaps what distinguishes them more than anything else is their feel for the game for their size and position. These are guys that have played a ton of "point forward" in their careers. Along with Jamal Crawford and of course Chris Paul and the underrated Blake Griffin, the Clippers have a wealth of creative, intuitive ballers on this team. It's been great so far, but it could be even more fun to watch going forward.
  • Bledsoe. If Paul sits out again as I suspect he will, the pressure will be on Eric Bledsoe again to run the team in his absence. Bledsoe lived up to the challenge in Memphis last night, against a high pressure defense that might have caused problems for the sometimes out of control youngster. The challenge against Houston will be to avoid getting caught up in their tempo, to avoid going too fast. Bledsoe thrives at a high pace, and he'll be jumping passing lanes and flying around all night -- this could be the kind of game where he gets 10 steals against a Rockets team that leads the league in turnovers. The risk is that he commits 10 turnovers himself.
  • Turnovers. Speaking of turnovers, the Rockets lead the league in turnovers per game and in offensive turnover percentage. The Clippers lead the league in forcing turnovers and steals and in defensive turnover percentage. Clearly for the Clippers to win against a team that has played very well at home this season they will have to force a ton of turnovers.
  • Connections. Unless I'm missing something, no one of the Clippers roster was ever a Rocket, and no one on the Rockets roster was ever a Clipper, which doesn't happen very often in an NBA game (though the Rockets being the youngest team in the NBA means they haven't been around a ton). DeAndre Jordan was born and raised in Houston and will have a ton of family at the game tonight. Eric Bledsoe and Patrick Patterson were teammates at Kentucky. Rockets assistant Kelvin Sampson was the coach at Oklahoma before Blake Griffin arrived in Norman and had a hand in recruiting him. And that's pretty much all I have for connections. Oh, Rockets trainer Keith Smart Jones used to be the Clippers trainer. I had to dig deep on this one.
  • Get the Houston perspective at The Dream Shake.
  • Lyrical reference:

    Riding on the Rocket -- Shonen Knife

    Riding on the rocket, I wanna go to Pluto.
    Space foods are marshmallow,
    asparagus, and ice cream.
    Blue eyed cat said,"Let me go with you."
    Let's go, let's go, let's go with me.
    Mercury, Venus, Earth,Mars, Jupiter, Saturn Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto.

    True story -- I first discovered Shonen Knife through a couple of compilations, one of them the Heroes and Villains album from the Powerpuff Girls show, which I pretended was for my kids but which was always for me. The other compilation was If I Were a Carpenter, a tremendous Carpenters tribute album, on which they sang Top of the World. So while I may have stumbled into Shonen Knife in a roundabout way, how can you resist three tiny Japanese girls singing punk rock in Japenglish? Answer: you can't.