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Clippers-Rockets preview: Need this one

The Clippers are two breaks away from being 3-0 on this road trip; instead they're 1-2 and need a win tonight in Houston against the Rockets to return home with a split on the trip.

2012/2013 NBA Regular Season

March 30th, 2013, 5:00 PM
Toyota Center
Prime Tickets, KFWB 980 AM, KWKW 1330 AM
Clippers Tickets
Probable Starters
Chris Paul PG Jeremy Lin
Willie Green SG James Harden
Caron Butler SF Chandler Parsons
Blake Griffin PF Donatas Motiejunas
DeAndre Jordan C Omer Asik
Advanced Stats through games of March 29
91.2 (20th of 30) Pace 96.0 (1st of 30)
110.3 (3rd of 30) ORtg 109.9 (6th of 30)
103.3 (8th of 30) DRtg 106.4 (18th of 30)
Chauncey Billups (groin) out

The Back Story:

The Big Picture:

The Clippers are about 12 seconds -- or two defensive stops or two breaks or two bad calls or however you choose to frame your regret -- away from being a perfect 3-0 on this very important four game road trip, their last extended trip of the season. They led by two in Dallas with less than five seconds remaining, allowed the game tying bucket and then had a game winner waved off on a questionable call. Then three nights later they led in San Antonio by one with less than seven seconds remaining, gave up a three point play, and then watched as the referees swallowed their whistles on a clear foul that should have given them two free throws to tie the game. I guess the wind blows in Oklahoma because Texas sucks. But the Clippers have to spend one more night there, in Houston tonight against the Rockets. L.A. has had two easy wins against the Rockets this season, but the second one came with James Harden out of the lineup, and the Rockets have been very good at home this season, so this game should certainly not be taken for granted. The good news for the Clippers is that the Rockets have pretty much no answer defensively for any of their primary scorers -- Chris Paul, Jamal Crawford and Blake Griffin should all be able to do more or less whatever they want. But the high-scoring Rockets will try to respond on the other end.

The Antagonist:

The Rockets are 8-5 in the month of March -- a month that corresponds more or less with their reworked roster, after a couple of trade deadline deals in which they started over on their power forward position and at the same time acquired more assets (because Daryl Morey loves assets). The Rockets are certainly a success story this season -- few predicted they'd be a playoff team, even after the Harden trade -- but that doesn't mean they're not still destined for a first round playoff exist. But they are young, solid at almost every position, and have the assets and cap room to continue to improve, so the future looks pretty bright. The weak link for the current team has got to be that power forward spot, where they currently rely on rookies Donatas Motiejunas and Thomas Robinson, but the other roster spots are all solid. The Rockets love to play at a high pace, spread the floor with shooters, and let Harden and Lin penetrate to the rim or kick to shooters. It's a very effective and high-powered offense, and the Rockets are capable of beating anyone when they are making shots.

The Subplots

  • Comparison of key metrics. This game features two of the top six offenses in the league, so there should be plenty of scoring. The difference in the teams is that the Clippers also feature a solid defense, while the Rockets are in the bottom half of the league defensively.
  • The trip. So close. The Clippers could so easily be 3-0 on the trip, but instead find themselves 1-2. Before the trip started we said that 2-2 would be a reasonable outcome -- they need this win to get there.
  • The race. The race for third is a see-saw affair at present. Last night's games left the Nuggets, Clippers and Grizzlies all with 24 losses, with Denver a half game ahead of the Clippers and Memphis a half game behind. Remember that the Clippers hold the magic "Division Winner" trump card for tie breakers, so if they can just stay even in the loss column they're in good shape. By the way, the magic number for clinching the division is down to two, which means it could happen tonight with a Clippers win coupled with a Warriors loss to the Blazers. Denver is idle tonight while Memphis is playing at Minnesota.
  • 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.
  • Stopping Harden. Harden averages 26 points per game. The Rockets second leading scorer, Parsons, averages 15. Stopping the Rockets is largely about limiting Harden. Willie Green will get the initial defensive assignment, but Matt Barnes will certainly take the lion's share of the minutes against Beardy McHairyface. This may even be a game where Vinny Del Negro dusts off Grant Hill as a wing stopper.
  • 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.
  • Griffin. After shooting a torrid percentage from the field since late January, Griffin is suddenly struggling to make shots. He's 23-64 over the last five games, 36%, dropping his season field goal percentage a full point, from 55% to 54%, in that span. He'll no doubt be thrilled to see Motiejunas and Robinson in the post tonight -- neither rookie is really going to be able to stop him and he should have a big game.
  • Aaron Brooks. Brooks won the Most Improved Player award with the Rockets three seasons ago. The Rockets have been through a point guard a year since then (Kyle Lowry, Goran Dragic and Lin) while Brooks' career has been in a tail-spin. He was bought out by the Kings at the beginning of March, opening the door for his return to the Rockets. But he's only made three appearances for Houston in spot minutes, remaining behind Patrick Beverly in the point guard rotation for the time being.
  • Looking ahead. With the Spurs game in the rear-view mirror, the Clippers have relatively few truly daunting games left on their schedule. Tonight's game in Houston and a game two weeks from now in Memphis are the only road games left against winning teams. After tonight, five of their remaining eight games are at home. In other words, there's very little reason that the Clippers couldn't start a season-ending 8-1 run tonight. Or heck, why not just close it out with nine straight wins.
  • First two meetings. Rockets games are high-scoring, and as it happens the Clippers tend to be at their best when the game is flowing. The first two meetings featured some of the best highlights of the season for the Clippers and the games were never really in doubt. In February in L.A. the Clippers scored 46 points in the first quarter and 69 points in the first half. The Rockets don't have much hope of stopping the Clippers from scoring, meaning their best/only chance is to just score more, so you can expect another high-scoring game tonight.
  • Three point shooting. The Rockets and the Knicks are in an incredibly tight race to break the NBA records for three pointers attempted and made in a single season. The current record for attempts per game is 27.85, set by the 08-09 Mike D'Antoni Knicks. Both the Rockets (28.79 3PA per game) and Knicks (28.72) are well ahead of that pace, but a couple threes here or there could swing it for one team or the other. The record for three point makes in a season is 10.26 per game, set by the 09-10 Orlando Magic. The Knicks have a very slight lead over the Rockets there, 10.63 to 10.61, but again it's very close -- we're talking literally two more made threes for the Rockets over the remainder of the season for them to catch New York. Unless someone suddenly changes their style, both teams will break both records this season. Which one finishes on top remains to be seen.
  • More on three point shooting. So as you can see, the Rockets like to shoot the three. Harden, Parsons and Carlos Delfino all take at least five threes per game while hitting a high percentage. Patrick Beverly will come off the bench and hoist them -- heck, everyone has the green light. The Clippers have to close out on shooters.
  • More on three point shooting. I still maintain that randomness plays a much larger role in three point defense than people like to admit and of course those random results are far more likely with small sample sizes. BUT -- if you are the sort who has worried about the Clippers three point defense and sees their season performance (.375 three point percentage allowed, 27th in the league) as a huge problem and not just bad luck, then hopefully you'll take comfort in this. In the last five games, the Clippers have held their opponents to 31-97 from deep. That's under 32% and just over six three pointers per game in that span.
  • Texas. The Clippers began this road trip a perfect 2-0 in games played in Texas this season. Two heartbreaking losses later, they are now 2-2. A win in Houston would give them a winning record in Texas, and I don't have to look it up to tell you that that almost never happens.
  • Back-to-back. Both teams are coming off losses last night, so the Clippers shouldn't be at a big disadvantage. Yes, they're on the road, and yes they're at the end of a four-games-in-five-nights stretch. But the Rockets had to travel from Memphis last night after losing to the Grizzlies, so they're about even on the bakc-to-back fatigue factor.
  • First round matchup? If the season were to end today, the Clippers would have to fourth seed and the Rockets would be the seventh. But the Clippers are essentially tied for the third seed and own the tie-breaker, so they control their own destiny for finishing third. Meanwhile, the Rockets are just a game behind the Warriors in the loss column and own the tie-breaker, so they could easily overtake Golden State for sixth. If those two things were to happen, the Clippers-Rockets would be a first round playoff series -- and frankly, the Clippers would like nothing better.
  • Good job, good effort. Obviously it hurts to lose, but it must be said that the Clippers played very well in San Antonio last night. If Tim Duncan doesn't have his best night in five years the Clippers win that game easily. They struggled to contain Tony Parker, but defended everyone else very well, Duncan included -- Timmy just made shots. The task is easier in Houston -- if they play at anything close to the same level, they should be fine.
  • Milestones. The Clippers are still looking to secure their first-ever 50 win season. Their next win, whenever it happens, gives it to them.
  • 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. Parsons and Griffin played AAU ball together as teenagers. 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. 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:

    Afternoon Delight -- Starland Vocal Band

    Gonna find my baby, gonna hold her tight
    gonna grab some afternoon delight.
    My motto's always been; when it's right, it's right.
    Why wait until the middle of a cold dark night.
    When everything's a little clearer in the light of day.
    And you know the night is always gonna be there anyway.

    Thinkin' of you's workin' up my appetite
    looking forward to a little afternoon delight.
    Rubbin' sticks and stones together makes the sparks ingite
    and the thought of rubbin' you is getting so exciting.
    Sky rockets in flight. Afternoon delight. Afternoon delight.

    Obviously this is a schlocky, gimmicky four-part harmony one-hit-wonder oddity from the 70s, but it's also taken a prominent place in pop culture over the years. I couldn't resist including it, primarily because of it's role in shows like Anchorman and Glee and especially Arrested Development. When Michael sings a Karaoke Afternoon Delight with his niece Maeby at the office Christmas party without realizing what the song is about -- that's about the funniest thing ever.