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Clippers-Rockets preview: Which team is more real?

The Rockets are the hottest team in the NBA, but the Clippers have already beaten them twice this season. A Clipper win tonight will leave the teams in a virtual tie with each other and clinch the season series for LA.

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
2013/2014 NBA Regular Season

February 26th, 2014, 7:30 PM
ESPN, Prime Ticket, KFWB 980 AM, KWKW 1330 AM
Win-Loss Breakdown
17-9 East 14-3
22-11 West 23-15
23-5 Home 22-7
16-15 Road 17-11
16-13 .500+ 17-12
23-7 .500- 22-6
6-4 L10 9-1
Probable Starters
Chris Paul PG Patrick Beverley
Jamal Crawford SG James Harden
Matt Barnes SF Chandler Parsons
Blake Griffin PF Terrence Jones
DeAndre Jordan C Dwight Howard
Advanced Stats
98.14 (8th of 30) Pace 94.4 (24th of 30)
109.1 (2nd of 30) ORtg 108.1 (5th of 30)
102.6 (12th of 30) DRtg 102.1 (9th of 30)
J.J. Redick (back) out
Greg Smith (knee) questionable
Glen Davis (new signing) in
Dwight Howard (knee) probable

The Back Story (The Clippers lead the season series, 2-0):

Date Venue Final

11/04/13 Los Angeles Clippers 137, Rockets 118 Recap Box
11/09/13 Houston Clippers 107, Rockets 94 Recap Box

    The Big Picture:

The Clippers have won two straight games and now return home for one of the softest stretches of their schedule all season. The only leave LA once in the next two weeks -- traveling all the way to Phoenix for a one game trip next Tuesday. They play nine of their next 13 against teams with losing records, and three of the good teams are coming into STAPLES Center on the second night of a back-to-back, as is the case with the Rockets tonight. In short, it's an opportunity to make some real headway in the standings. That starts now. The Rockets are a game ahead of the Clippers, and home court in the first round depends on passing at least one team currently ahead of them in the standings. Of course, the Clippers have higher aspirations than a four seed, but it all begins with another win over the Rockets. The Clippers have had Houston's number this season winning the first two meetings, and have won seven of the last eight meetings between the teams. Blake Grifin has been a little quiet the last two games, but has been a monster during the month of February, as has Jamal Crawford.

The Antagonist:

The Clippers and the Rockets are both in the mix for the "other" legitimate contender from the West. Oklahoma City and San Antonio are the givens in the 'contender' discussion in the West -- because they're very good, and because they've each been to the Finals in the past two seasons. But can any other team legitimately force their way into the conversation? Portland tried, but I think most people agree that they'll fade. The Rockets are the hottest team in the NBA right now, and the Clippers are beginning to get healthy and play well at the right time (though they still don't have J.J. Redick back). The winner of this game can take control of the new contender conversation, at least for a day or two. The Rockets have lost twice to the Clippers already this season, and would love to avenge those losses. Not to mention that a third Clipper win would give them the season series, an important tie breaker for two teams so close in the standings. The Rockets played last night in Sacramento, but they got just what they needed there, a blow out win over the Kings that allowed them to rest all of their starters the entire fourth quarter. So while the Kings are on a back-to-back tonight, they will be pretty well-rested.

The Subplots

  • Comparison of key metrics. The Clippers and Rockets have very similar efficiency profiles this season -- they are both elite on the offensive end, and passable if unconvincing on defense. The Clippers defensive efficiency has been getting steadily worse lately -- though they have been playing some good offenses during that time. There's no respite from that trend against the Rockets.
  • Harden's LAC struggles. Harden scored 15 points on 6-16 shooting against the Clippers in the first meeting this season. He was even worse the next time out, shooting just 4-15. He is a cumulative 1-13 from beyond the three point line against the Clippers this season. To be fair, he was dealing with some early season injuries back then and it was doubtful he'd play in the second game at all. But as with his former teammate on the Thunder Russell Westbrook, struggling against the Clippers is something of a trend for Harden. He's only scored over 20 once against the Clippers, and his best shooting night was 6-12, which is surprising considering what an efficient scorer he has been in his career. His career scoring average is lower against the Clippers (11.9 points per game) than against any other team. He has shot 34% from the field against the LAC on his career. There's no reasonable explanation for this -- the Clippers have not employed any sort of "Harden stopper" over the past four seasons. It's just one of those things.
  • Howard banged up? Dwight Howard banged knees with DeMarcus Cousins in the first meeting of Houston's thrashing of Sacramento last night. Howard limped off the court at the time, but returned and seemed fine. It's always possible with an injury of that sort that it will swell up after the game and cause the player to miss some time. Basically, we'll find out how Howard feels today. He's almost certainly going to be fine for this game, based on how he played after the incident last night.
  • Christening a Big Baby. The newest Clipper, Glen Big Baby Davis, should make his season debut in this game. The Clippers signed him on Monday, but he did not pass his physical in time to play in New Orleans. Davis isn't a world beater by any means -- but he's a significant upgrade over the likes of Ryan Hollins, and he has championship experience from his days with the Celtics, with a coach named Doc.
  • Two POM candidates. This is the Clippers' last game of February, and both Griffin and Crawford have to be considered legitimate candidates for player of the month in the Western Conference. Griffin has averaged 30.7 points per game in February; Crawford 25.2. The honor may go to Kevin Love or to Kevin Durant again, but if the league wants an alternative to Durant and a player from a team that has done well during the month, they could do worse than one of these two Clippers. Oh, and James Harden of the Rockets (29 ppg) has been pretty good too.
  • New Rockets power forward. In the first meeting of the season between these teams, Terrence Jones of the Rockets played four minutes. In the second he did not play at all, which was Kevin McHale's decision. Four days after that game, Jones went into the starting lineup and he has been there ever since. It doesn't take an expert to see that the Rockets had a weakness at the four spot. They have All Stars at center and shooting guard, Chandler Parsons is a terrific all-around player at the three, and Patrick Beverley and Jeremy Lin are a dynamic tag team at the point. So power forward is the issue. So how has Jones been in his starting role? Pretty good really. He's averaging 15 points and 9.4 rebounds per 36 minutes, shooting .522 from the field. His PER is 17.8. I'm not suggesting that the Rockets are an entirely different team than the one the Clippers played twice in November, but he makes a difference for them. Whether he can handle Blake Griffin is an entirely different matter.
  • Rockets versus the East. The Rockets are 14-3 against the East. That's great right? Well, as we've pointed out many times, schedule matters. Their are two good teams in the East -- the Heat and the Pacers. The Rockets have faced those two teams just once so far -- a 30 point loss in Indiana. The Clippers are 0-4 against the elite East teams (either team at full strength). It's not a good thing that the Clippers are winless against the Heat and Pacers, but at least they don't have to play them again. If the Rockets can continue their dominance over the East through those teams, I'll be impressed.
  • First meeting. The Clippers have had some offensive outbursts this season, but perhaps none of the magnitude of the one against the Rockets on November 4. The Clippers scored 42 points in the first quarter, had 78 by halftime and 104 after three quarters. They gave up 118 points -- and it didn't matter a bit since they had a 20 point lead most of the game. The 137 points they gave up is still a season high for the Clippers and two points shy of the highest point total in the league this season. (It's the highest if you exclude games against the 76ers, i.e. if you only count actual NBA competition.)
  • Red hot Rockets. The Rockets have won 10 of their last 11 and are 13-3 in their last 16 games. However they are entering a brutal stretch in their schedule, with games against the Clippers, Heat (twice), Pacers, Blazers and Thunder in their next nine games. Ouch. The Clippers on the other hand as we've noted are going into a relatively soft stretch of their schedule. It will be interesting to look at the Western Conference standings on the morning of March 17 -- if the Clippers don't have a nice cushion on the Rockets at that point, it will be an opportunity lost (or perhaps it will mean that the Rockets are a lot better than I think they are).
  • Quiet deadline. Over the past several seasons, no franchise has been more active on the trade market than Houston. So it was somewhat surprising when the trade deadline came and went and all the Rockets did was trade Aaron Brooks to the Nuggets for Jordan Hamilton. Brooks was redundant in his second stint in Houston with the emergence of Patrick Beverley to complement Jeremy Lin at the point; Hamilton made his first appearance for the Rockets in their blowout win over the Kings last night. Daryl Morey was rumored to have been after Rajon Rondo of the Celtics at the trade deadline, but could not get a deal done.
  • Hack a center, any center. With DeAndre Jordan (.446 from the line) and Dwight Howard (.544) sharing the court, it's possible we'll see some intentional fouling in this one. Or perhaps Doc Rivers and Kevin McHale are so put off by the strategy when it is used against them, that they have a gentleman's agreement not to employ it against each other. You know how I feel. Strategically it's a loser other than as a desperation ploy to extend the game when you're behind at the end.
  • Paul. Chris Paul had two really bad games coming out of the All Star break, and was mediocre in the win over Oklahoma City. But he looked terrific Monday night in New Orleans, so hopefully he's back on the right track.
  • 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. 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.
  • Shakespearean reference:
    Romeo and JulietAct V, Scene 1 - Romeo
    Come hither, man. I see that thou art poor:
    Hold, there is forty ducats: let me have
    A dram of poison, such soon-speeding gear
    As will disperse itself through all the veins
    That the life-weary taker may fall dead
    And that the trunk may be discharged of breath
    As violently as hasty powder fired
    Doth hurry from the fatal cannon's womb.

    There were no rockets in Shakespeare time, so the closest Elizabethan analog I have is a cannon.