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Clippers-Rockets preview: Home again, home again, jiggity jig

The Clippers won the final two games of their road trip in impressive fashion and now return home for the first time this month. Can they stay on a roll into this weekend's All Star break? The high scoring Rockets are the first home test.

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports
2012/2013 NBA Regular Season

February 13th, 2013, 7:30 PM
Prime Ticket, NBA-TV, KFWB 980 AM. KWKW 1330 AM
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Probable Starters
Chris Paul PG Jeremy Lin
Chauncey Billups SG James Harden Carlos Delfino
Caron Butler SF Chandler Parsons
Blake Griffin PF Patrick Patterson
DeAndre Jordan C Omer Asik
Advanced Stats through games of Feb. 12
91.5 (16th of 30) Pace 96.1 (1st of 30)
109.0 (7th of 30) ORtg 109.8 (4th of 30)
102.0 (5th of 30) DRtg 106.8 (21st of 30)
Chauncey Billups (back) probable
Toney Douglas (hip pointer) questionable
Caron Butler (back) probable
James Harden (ankle) out
Trey Thompkins (knee) out

The Back Story:

The Big Picture:

The Rockets have been playing well, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say that if the Clippers can beat them in Houston without Chris Paul, then they can beat them in L.A. with Chris Paul. Stands to reason, right? Of course there's a wild card in that equation, which is three point shooting. The Rockets love to shoot the three, and about two thirds of the Clippers losses this season have come against teams that lit them up from beyond the arc. The Clippers have looked as good in the past two games since Paul returned to the lineup and to form as they ever looked during their 17 game winning streak. And even though they're playing their third game in four days and had to travel back from the East coast Monday night, they shouldn't even be particularly tired, considering that no one played big minutes against the Sixers and Paul and Griffin and Crawford all took a game or two or five off during the road trip. They may or may not have their starting wings, Chauncey Billups and Caron Butler, who both missed the Philly game with back issues, but the Clipper depth handles those absences pretty well. From a matchup standpoint, Blake Griffin should have a huge advantage over anyone the Rockets can throw at him, and likewise Jamal Crawford (who scored 30 in the first meeting) will likely abuse the Rockets guards.

The Antagonist:

The Rockets have been crazy streaky this season, but luckily for them they're on one of their good steaks right now. They went 12-3 over 15 games in December and January, then promptly lost eight out of nine. But since that bad stretch they've now won seven of ten. In this recent run they've got road wins over Utah and Golden State, two of the better home teams in the league, so they can certainly win on the road. This is a tough team to get a handle on -- they are the ultimate drive and kick team, and positions 1 through 4 will shoot three pointers, no matter who they have on the court. Basically, other than center Omer Asik and whoever backs him up, they like to shoot threes. The offense consists of a ton of pick and roll with either James Harden or Jeremy Lin handling the ball, and everyone else spreading the floor. They try to get you rotating and then find the open man. And it works -- they have the fourth most efficient offense in the NBA, are second in the league in scoring, and fourth in effective field goal percentage. They give up a lot of points also, but they're goal is to outscore you, and lately it's been working. [Note by Steve Perrin, 02/13/13 12:23 AM PST ] Harden turned his ankle Tuesday night against Golden State and will not play tonight, which is a huge break for the Clippers.

The Subplots

  • [Note by Steve Perrin, 02/13/13 12:24 AM PST ] Harden out. Hat tip to citizen chrisd in the comments, Harden is out for tonight's game against the Clippers. So you can ignore some of the Harden-centric bullets below, and Houston tonight becomes the Linsanity, Texas-style. Harden stepped on David Lee's foot in the game last night in Oakland (thank you for beating the Warriors twice this week, btw) and turned his ankle. He returned to that game, but apparently could barely walk afterwards. Now, the key for the Clippers, who have on several occasions lost to teams missing top players, is not to have a letdown. Toney Douglas has missed Houston's last two games with a hip pointer, and James Anderson is barely used, so it's hard to say who will start in the backcourt for Harden. It could be Douglas or Anderson or Patrick Beverley or Carlos Delfino. (Another update -- the guys at The Dream Shake say it will be Delfino starting.)
  • Comparison of key metrics. As I mentioned above, Houston's goal is to outscore you. The Rockets play at the fastest pace in the league and it's not particularly close. The Rockets shoot a lot, they score a lot -- but the don't defend a lot, in the bottom third in defensive efficiency.
  • Home at last. The Clippers haven't played a home game since January 27, two and a half weeks ago. They just completed an eight game road trip, their longest of the season, by winning the final two games to salvage a 4-4 record. The team would love to take a four game winning streak into the All Star break this weekend by beating the Rockets tonight and the Lakers tomorrow -- but first things first, get the Houston win tonight.
  • Friendly, leisurely schedule. The Clippers are concluding a string of four games in five nights today and tomorrow, but no team in the NBA plays fewer games after the All Star break. In addition to the rather leisurely pace, 15 of their final 26 games after the break will be at home. If they can finish this part of their schedule strong, they will be well positioned to make a push into the playoffs down the stretch.
  • Chris Paul on a roll. Chris Paul was hurt the first time these teams met. The Rockets well no doubt wish he was hurt tonight. Paul has been spectacular over the last two games, averaging 23 points, 9 assists and 4.5 steals in just 27 minutes per game. He's made 19-28 field goals in two games, 68%. Criminy. Oh, and Jamal Crawford has been every bit as hot.
  • 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 former Rocket 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.
  • Three point shooting. Only the Knicks shoot more three pointers per game than the Rockets, who take more than 28 three pointers per game. In fact, if both the Knicks and the Rockets remain on their current pace, they will both break the current single season mark for most three pointers in a season. The Rockets make .366 from deep, which is ninth in the league. The Clippers are 0-11 this season when teams make more than 10 threes while making better than 40% of them. The Rockets made 13 threes in the first meeting -- but took 37 of them for a survivable 35%. Last week against the Warriors Houston made 23 threes, tying an NBA record. The Clippers did a great job of defending the three point line against the Knicks on Sunday -- they have to have the same defensive commitment to closing out shooters tonight.
  • The century mark. The Rockets have scored 100 or more in 10 straight games. When they are held below 100 this season, they are 4-13. It's not easy to do, but keep them under the century mark and you've more or less got the game.
  • Harden and Lin and the no names. This is a strange roster. Beyond Harden and Jeremy Lin, there really aren't any names -- at all -- on the Rockets. And let's face it, Lin is more name than player anyway. Chandler Parsons and Asik were second round picks. Patrick Patterson and Marcus Morris were both taken 14th (Houston has had a bad habit of just missing the playoffs lately). There's not a top ten pick in sight other than Harden. But to his credit, coach Kevin McHale has found a system that is working for them.
  • 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 below 15. Meanwhile Harden's usage is 29%. 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, eighth most in the league, that doesn't leave a lot of time for Lin to be 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. Chauncey Billups will get the assignment if he's healthy, or it could fall to Willie Green. Fortunately, the Clippers have both Matt Barnes and now Grant Hill as viable options to threw at Harden. Look for Del Negro to make an early move to get Barnes or Hill on Harden if he starts heating up. As we saw against Carmelo Anthony, a great individual defender can be a game changer against a player who carries the scoring load for his team.
  • 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 than a million per season. Barnes will make more next season, with the Clippers or elsewhere, but Parsons is locked up. That's less than a million a year for your starting small forward FOR FOUR YEARS. So yeah, best bargain in the league.
  • 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. The Clippers thrive in the open court after forcing turnovers, and the Rockets turn the ball over a lot, so it's a good formula for success for L.A.
  • Strengths and weaknesses. This is an interesting game. The Clippers have had trouble defending the three point line, while the Rockets love to shoot the three ball. So a Houston strength goes right at an L.A. weakness. On the other hand, the Clippers love to force turnovers, and the Rockets are turnover prone. So here a Clippers strength can take advantage of a Houston weakness. It will be interesting to see which of these becomes a bigger factor in the game. If the Clippers can defend the three point line, they will almost certainly win. But if Houston can protect the ball, they'll improve their own chances greatly.
  • Connections. Unless I'm missing something, no one on 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. 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. Rockets trainer Keith Jones used to be the Clippers trainer. I had to dig deep on this one. And as someone pointed out the last time these teams met, both the Rockets and the Clippers moved to their current cities from San Diego, making San Diego the only city to have lost two different NBA teams.
  • Get the Houston perspective at The Dream Shake.
  • Lyrical reference:

    Rocket's Tail -- Kate Bush

    I put on my pointed hat
    And my black and silver suit
    And I check my gunpowder pack
    And I strap the stick on my back
    And dressed as a rocket on Waterloo Bridge
    Nobody seemed to see me
    Then with the fuse in my hand
    And now shooting into the night
    And still as a rocket
    I land in the river.

    I loved me some Kate Bush back in the day. Running up that Hill remains one of my favorite albums of all time. I still have a penchant for female artists from Liz Phair to Lily Allen to Regina Spektor to Kate Nash, and they all owe a debt of gratitude to the groundbreaking work of Kate Bush.