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Clippers-Rockets preview: Going for the sweep

The Clippers are looking for the season sweep against the Rockets tonight. The winner of this game will finish the evening in third place in the Western Conference, for whatever that's worth.

Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports
2013/2014 NBA Regular Season

March 28th, 2014, 5:00 PM
Toyota Center
NBA-TV, Prime Ticket, KFWB 980 AM, KWKW 1330 AM
Win-Loss Breakdown
21-9 East 23-5
30-13 West 26-17
31-5 Home 29-7
20-17 Road 20-15
25-14 .500+ 24-16
26-8 .500- 25-6
8-2 L10 7-3
Probable Starters
Chris Paul PG Jeremy Lin
Darren Collison SG James Harden
Matt Barnes SF Chandler Parsons
Blake Griffin PF Terrence Jones
DeAndre Jordan C Dwight Howard Omer Asik
Advanced Stats
98.19 (8th of 30) Pace 98.31 (8th of 30)
109.1 (2nd of 30) ORtg 108.5 (4th of 30)
101.6 (7th of 30) DRtg 102.2 (10th of 30)
J.J. Redick (back) out
Patrick Beverley (meniscus) out
Danny Granger (hamstring) out
Dwight Howard (ankle) probable out

Greg Smith (knee surgery) out

The Back Story (The Clippers lead the season series, 3-0):

Date Venue Final

11/04/13 Los Angeles Clippers 137, Rockets 118 Recap Box
11/09/13 Houston Clippers 107, Rockets 94 Recap Box
02/26/13 Los Angeles Clippers 101, Rockets 93 Recap Box
    The Big Picture:

As big games go, this is somehow smaller than it seems. At first glance, it seems really huge -- two teams battling for playoff position, tied in the loss column, with just three weeks left in the regular season. But the three seed versus the four seed is really not that big a deal -- two would be great, and five would be a problem, but the Clippers probably aren't going to catch the Thunder, and none of the teams further down the standings have much chance of making up the five games in the loss column that currently protects the Rockets and Clippers in the top four, so in the end we're mainly talking about the difference between three and four. This game doesn't even have any bearing on the season series, since the Clippers have already clinched that with wins in each of the first three meetings. The Clippers certainly still entertain hopes of chasing down the Thunder, and a win tonight is almost imperative in that quest. But that's a long shot still. More important than the standings perhaps is the simple message at play in this game: the Spurs and the Thunder are legitimate contenders in the Western Conference playoffs by virtue of each having won the West in the past two seasons. The Clippers and Rockets are right there in terms of performance this season, particularly since January 1 -- if the Clippers can beat the Rockets yet again, it will essentially say "It's a three team race in the West, and the Clippers plan to crash the party."

The Antagonist:

The Rockets got bad news on the injury front just as they are heading into this game with their nemesis the Clippers. Starting point guard Patrick Beverley is out for at least a while after an MRI revealed meniscus damage in his knee, suffered in Thursday's win over Philadelphia. Meanwhile, All Star center Dwight Howard missed three games after having a cyst removed from his ankle, and although he's been back for a couple, the ankle was bothering him on Thursday and he has hinted that he might take some time off in order to be completely ready for the playoffs. The Rockets certainly don't want to get swept by the Clippers this season, and they'll need James Harden to have a good game (which is rare for him against the LAC) to avoid it, especially if Howard is out. If the Rockets do get the victory and avoid the sweep, they will pass the Clippers in the standings, at least in winning percentage.

The Subplots

  • [Note by Steve Perrin, 03/29/14 1:00 PM PDT ] Injury update. Dwight Howard is definitely out of the game. Danny Granger is also out for the Clippers for the rest of the trip after tweaking his hamstring in Dallas. For the Rockets, Omer Asik is more than capable of starting, but it obviously hurts their depth. For the Clippers, Jared Dudley had resurfaced recently and will get some more minutes tonight. Granger had also been getting some minutes as a stretch four, and with the Rockets collection of perimeter oriented power forwards, that would be an option in this game as well. It will be interesting to see if those minutes go to Dudley or to Hedo Turkoglu.
  • 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 not always convincing on defense.
  • Separation. A month ago the Blazers were in third with the Clippers and Rockets chasing them. The Warriors have hung around that level of the playoff race off and on this season as well. But over the last few weeks the Clippers and Rockets have managed to pull away from those other fine West teams. The second half of the Western Conference playoff picture is a complete mess, and really and one of the teams chasing the Rockets could actually wind up missing the playoffs. But the top four teams seem pretty well set, and even the order is becoming increasingly clear. It's not done yet, but in all likelihood it's going to be Spurs first, Thunder second and then the Clippers and the Rockets in some order in third and fourth.
  • What's at stake? I've said that third versus fourth is not a huge incentive, but there are implications. The most immediate is that the fourth place team will have to play the fifth place team, which in theory will be a tougher opponent. But honestly, who knows who will finish fifth, and whether they'll really be any more intimidating than the very good team that finishes sixth? The biggest factor is in the second round, where the four seed will have to face the first seeded Spurs, a team that looks nigh unbeatable right now. Of course, you probably have to play the Spurs eventually to get to the NBA Finals, and it's not as if the Thunder will be a picnic in the second round on the other side of the bracket, but the longer you can avoid the Spurs, the better, especially with their aging core. One final implication of three versus four is in the even that both teams upset their opponents in round two -- if the three seed and the four seed actually meet in the Western Conference finals, you'd certainly prefer to be the three seed and get home court advantage for the series.
  • 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 again shot 6-16 in the third game. He is a cumulative 2-19 from beyond the three point line against the Clippers this season. 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 (12,3 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. The law of averages could catch up to this situation at any moment.
  • Sweeps week. The Clippers won their third straight game over the Mavericks Thursday night and have a chance to sweep them next Thursday back in L.A. They are going for the sweep against the Rockers tonight. They've got a chance to sweep the Timberwolves when they play in Minneapolis on Saturday. It's not easy to win four straight on the season against a good team -- we'll see how many of these sweeps the Clippers can close out over the next six days.
  • Road record. The Clippers are 20-17 on the road this season. With four road games remaining, they need just one more win to clinch a winning road record for the second straight season. It won't be easy -- games in Houston, Minnesota, Phoenix and Portland will all be difficult.
  • 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 15.6 points and 9.2 rebounds per 36 minutes, shooting .544 from the field. His PER is 18.8. 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.
  • 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 Houston opponent.
  • Records since January 1. Since the calendar switched over to 2014, these are two of the best/hottest teams in the NBA. The Spurs have the best winning percentage since new year's day, a pristine .775. But the Rockets are second at .757 and the Clippers are third at .750. By net efficiency, the Clippers have been the best team in the NBA since January 1, with the Spurs second and the Rockets third. Man, the West is really freakin' good this season. It's really not fair.
  • 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 Juliet - Act 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.