In a now well-established trend, the Clippers crafted a defense to smother James Harden and dare his teammates to beat them instead. Darn if the Houston role players didn't nearly do it for a while.
This one was nip and tuck for 36 minutes. Doc Rivers' game plan was clear from the outset: throw extra defenders at Houston's MVP candidate and force the other Rockets to make plays. They did, for three quarters, before sputtering in the final quarter and succumbing to an unselfish and energized home squad.
The Clippers compensated for the Blake Griffin gap in the lineup and unleashed a sharp attack predicated on passing and ball movement, and even though they struggled to convert from deep, their discipline was rewarded with quality looks from inside the arc.
You want a man of the match? Take your pick. DeAndre Jordan picked on the smallish Rockets for his second consecutive 20-20 game and third of the month. He also made the play of the night by hassling Harden way out toward halfcourt and forcing an early turnover. J.J. Redick was a consistent factor all night at both ends of the floor -- see his team high +20 rating. His steady play within the defensive design was a major reason why Harden finished with just nine points and missed all seven of his threes. Jamal Crawford overcame yet another poor start to key a 6-0 run that began the final quarter and put a distance between the Clippers and Rockets that would not be overcome.
My personal choice would be Matt Barnes. His numbers weren't gaudy, but his ceaseless energy and opportunism (four steals) were tone-setting. Does this dude ever mistime a cut? He was always in the lane when he needed to be, and the Clippers fed him for 10 points.
All told, six Clippers finished with at least 10 points, and even Big Baby and Little Rivers (which sounds like a terrible Bluegrass band) played solidly for stretches. Amazingly, with all of that, I still need to mention Chris Paul and his game high 12 assists.
For the Rockets, Josh Smith and Corey Brewer shone in particular, using their fast break prowess to ignite an offense missing a central figure. The oft-derided Smith, who was unceremoniously ejected from Detroit, showed a flair for passing that was vaguely reminiscent of the Clippers' missing star forward, tallying four assists, all in the opening quarter. He also battled the much larger DeAndre Jordan in impressive fashion, filling in gamely for the missing Dwight Howard to pull down 13 boards, seven on the offensive end.
Brewer converted a couple of "come on" three-pointers, one of which came with just seconds remaining in the 1st and deflated the crowd like [insert New England Patriots joke here]. He was a terror in transition and finished with a team high 22 points.
It was an entertaining game, but not always the prettiest. Cue the Not Top 10 music, because this one featured some fails. The Clippers had some trouble holding onto rebounds, even taking them away from one another, especially big men Jordan and Spencer Hawes. Josh Smith backed up over a Big Baby tabletop and fell ass-first before pounding the ball against the floor because, well I don't know why. Neither team could shoot -- the Rockets made nine of 45 three-point attempts and still bettered the Clippers. Sharp early play largely dissolved in a foul-ridden 3rd quarter and a hack-a-DJ-marred 4th, and the All-Star break comes in the nick of time.
So now the Clippers and Rockets get to rest their weary legs, with a full week's rest before the real games begin again. Having taken this victory, the Clippers will be the ones resting easy.