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Film Room: Houston's Guards Don't Guard in Game 3

The Clippers won Game 3 thanks to some hot shooting from their guards. Namely, anyone guarded by Jason Terry and/or James Harden. The Rockets had no answer for it. Will they over the next few games?

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Ever since Patrick Beverley went down, the Houston Rockets had a problem on the perimeter in terms of guarding opposing team’s best perimeter weapons. While Trevor Ariza has been a nice addition for them this year, he still only guards one guy at a time. Houston lacks the functional perimeter defenders to lockdown on defense for an extended period of time. This wasn’t more evident than Game 3 the other night when the Los Angeles Clippers ran roughshod over the Rockets thanks, in large part, to a massive shooting night from their guards. Namely, J.J. Redick and Austin Rivers.

As mentioned, due to Beverley’s injury, the Rockets have been forced to go to a non-defensive backcourt. They’re starting Jason Terry and James Harden together. Not exactly the defensively capable starters like the Memphis Grizzlies have with Mike Conley and Courtney Lee (or Tony Allen). Or, as we’re finding out in this series, like the Clippers have with Chris Paul and J.J. Redick. As a result, the Rockets were made to pay for their mistakes on the defensive end of the floor in Game 3. And they paid the ultimate price; a loss. So, let’s take a gander back at some of the game footage.

This was one of the earliest plays that the Clippers exploited the Rockets lack of perimeter defense. The Rockets are forced to put Trevor Ariza onto Chris Paul simply because, well, that’s their best defender against the Clippers best guard. Paul walks into the frontcourt, gets a quick little slip screen from Blake Griffin, and comes across to the top of the arc in good position to shoot the ball. Terrence Jones is late to recover and it looks like there’s a miscommunication between him and Ariza. On the backside of the play, J.J. Redick runs a baseline cut and curl that ends up with DeAndre Jordan setting a screen on Jason Terry. Terry tries to shoot the gap to where he thinks the pass is going but is halted by Jordan. Paul accurately reads the defense, throws a pinpoint pass to Redick who steps diagonally behind the three-point line, and Redick nails an early game-tying three.

One of the things to mention is that Terry has actually guarded Redick really well early in the prior two games of this series. This wasn’t the case in Game 3. The Clippers, probably due to Paul’s return, were able to get Redick free early and often. This makes the Clippers offense purr like a newborn kitten. Redick is probably the biggest beneficiary of Paul’s return as it allows him to have less pressure heaped onto his shoulders and gets him back to his comfort zone of always moving on offense. He weaves through screens, hits the curls, and loses defenders with copious amounts of grace. Redick’s a better athlete than most people would probably think, as evidenced by his heavy minutes workload in the playoffs.

Throughout the course of this game, though, the Clippers were finally able to exploit the Redick-Terry matchup quite a bit, especially early on. As mentioned, this wasn’t the case in the first couple games of this series. As the game wore on, the Rockets tried to do different things to Redick but none of it worked as the Clippers offense simply just hummed along and sung their usual tune. As you will see in the next couple instances, Jason Terry stood no chance at even sniffing J.J. Redick in Game 3. Every attempt he made was futile in nature.

This play was on a side-out-of-bounds and is a set that the Clippers love to run. Paul gets the ball, basically just stands idly by, and waits until Redick makes his baseline curl off of a Jordan screen. It’s pretty standard stuff. On this play, Terry tries to run around Jordan but instead runs into Jordan’s hip and simply collapses. This gives Redick even more time to set himself up for a wide open mid-range jumper. Trevor Ariza is late to help because he can’t just leave Paul wide open, and it results in another two points for Redick with Terry as the primary defender. Perhaps Dwight Howard could have stepped out onto Redick here but it would have left the backdoor alley-oop wide open for Jordan. And that’s a no-no.

This is just J.J. Redick being a phenomenal offensive player. It’s another side-out-of-bounds set and sees Redick get the ball quickly from Austin Rivers before curling around the top of the arc. He throws a simple flip pass to Jordan, receives a screen from Jordan, the ball from Jordan, and hits a semi-tough three while Jason Terry plays catchup to him. This is simply a case of the 37-year old Terry being ill equipped to do anything to deter Redick from getting to the spots he wants to get to. Yes, this is a tough shot. But it’s also a shot that Redick hits and has hit at a frequent rate all year. No one can help Terry here or else it leaves the defense vulnerable elsewhere. And the team pays for it.

On this possession, we see Houston and Jason Terry try to cheat. Newsflash, they still paid for it. Redick runs his simple baseline curl play to the right side of the floor this time. Terrence Jones actually does a really smart thing and attempts to shoot the gap as he leaves Spencer Hawes near the baseline corner. The issue here for Houston is that Austin Rivers’ pass is on point and Redick doesn’t lose the ball. He gathers it and hits Hawes, who is wide open, for a baseline jumper. Terry is at fault here. Jones shot the gap but Terry basically gives a half-hearted attempt at playing defense. He simply leaves Hawes alone and just stands between Hawes and Redick. J.J. throws the pass by him before Terry can react and Houston realizes that nothing is working when it comes to stopping Redick.

As if the Rockets weren’t having enough issues guarding the Clippers perimeter players, Austin Rivers decided to get going in a massive way this game. On this play, Chris Paul dribbles into the frontcourt and Rivers sees himself playing the role of a way lesser J.J. Redick. He simply stands in the corner as the Clippers run their set and gets the ball from Spencer Hawes. Hawes sets a nice screen to give Rivers some space to shoot and neither Pablo Prigioni nor Josh Smith decide that stepping out onto an open guy is anything they feel interested in doing at that moment in time. Rivers rises, fires, and nails a three to push the Clippers lead to seven. While Terry and Harden weren’t in the game here, Houston still went with Prigioni who is a terrible defender in his own right.

Welcome to another addition of "This Old Guy Can’t Guard J.J. Redick." All that happens on this play is Jordan inbounds to Blake Griffin at midcourt, Griffin dribbles into the frontcourt, finds a curling Redick who then slingshots off of Griffin’s hip to nail a running 8-foot jumper. The defender here is Jason Terry, of course. And he does the single dumbest thing I’ve seen a defender do recently. When Redick jumps into his shot, all Terry does is jump the opposite direction and leave Redick so much room that no one contests the jumper. Redick rattles it in and the Clippers go up by ten. The help defense is pathetic here, as well. Jones makes no attempt to help on the drive, Howard was out of the paint and didn’t get back in time, and all that’s left is Redick to nail a shot he hits in his sleep.

It’s easy to point and laugh at the Houston Rockets defense at this point, especially on the perimeter, but a lot of this is just really good Clippers offense. They bent the Houston defense so much that they ended up getting the Rockets all out of whack. Often times, the help defense would come far too late because they didn’t want to leave a shooter wide open or a roller free. You can’t really fully blame them if those are the options but it’s quite obvious that Jason Terry isn’t a defensive stopper; especially at 37 years old. All he is at this juncture of his career is a standstill corner three-point shooter. That’s all well and good but Houston is asking him to do way too much on the other end of the floor simply because their star shooting guard, James Harden, is a liability himself and gets worn out trying to keep up with J.J. Redick.

Even when the Clippers aren’t getting scoring out of Redick or Rivers, they were still getting contributions in other ways by having them bend the defense. Quite often, a guard would leave a rolling big alone and the team would pay for it on the back end. The next play will actually illustrate that fact. Another thing to point is that Chris Paul makes a world of difference. We can talk about how great Austin Rivers was in Game 3 but just having Paul on the court was the ultimate difference maker. His vision, intelligence, and skill is second to none at his position and he showed it on one leg yet again.

This play is a classic case of "damned if you do, damned if you don’t." The Clippers get the ball to Chris Paul shortly after crossing midcourt and they run into a set that is just a double high screen for Paul. They ran it all series against the San Antonio Spurs but because of Kawhi Leonard’s defensive prowess, they ran it higher up the floor. Here, they start at its natural spot right around the three-point line. The key here isn’t the screens. It’s J.J. Redick on the far side. The second Paul darts to the left to probe for a passing lane, Redick curls to the top of the arc and openly calls for the ball. Jason Terry, who went to help on Blake Griffin’s roll to the hoop, abandons the help and darts towards Redick. It leaves the paint wide open for a Griffin dunk.

Two other things on this play are notable. James Harden let Austin Rivers run freely through the paint prior to Griffin’s roll and it’s wholly idiotic. It was so bad that Terry had to actually point out where Harden should be. It’s like Harden has no clue what to even do. Had Paul wanted to, he could have hit Rivers for a corner three. Instead, he hit Griffin on the roll. The other thing is that, due to the double high screen, Dwight Howard had to rotate up to stop Paul. Instead of cutting down to help on the roll man, Corey Brewer just crashes into Howard and helps create the passing lane he was trying to stop. In essence, the Rockets screwed this play up to high heaven. It was an awesome set by the Clippers that was aided by a comedy of errors from the Rockets.

Before we get into the meat and potatoes of this play, let’s just say that this is sort of a lucky shot by Austin Rivers. Yes, he was hot all game long but this was also a ridiculously tough shot that he hit. The possession starts out with Rivers getting the ball from Jamal Crawford. Griffin sets Rivers a simple screen that does nothing really. James Harden is the primary defender on Rivers and Rivers goes into his dribbling exhibition. Austin throws a little right-to-left crossover at Harden, gets Harden on his hip, and throws up a left-handed floater over the likes of both Harden and Dwight Howard. On a scale from 1 to 10, this was a 2 possession with a 10 result but it was aided by Harden’s lack of defensive base.

The issue for Harden on this play isn’t that Rivers scores. It’s that he lets Rivers get to a spot that gives Austin a better chance of scoring. All it took to get Harden on Rivers’ hip was a simple crossover move that Harden moved his feet too slowly to stop. While Harden doesn’t get beat outright on this play, he still can’t recover fast enough to contest the shot better. Even though Harden stops the initial probe by Rivers, the secondary move and attempt works and leads to a pretty crucial basket. Harden needed to get lower into his stance but his weight was shifted poorly onto his heels the entire time.

With the game within five points and the Rockets making a run, it looked like Game 3 was going to go down to the wire before a massive 23-0 run that was spearheaded by the Rivers and Redick duo. You can give Jason Terry some credit here initially as it looks like Redick wanted to run a simple screen handoff with Jordan but Terry kind of kills it. Jordan is standing at the three-point line, sees Rivers, and fires a pass right to him. Two things pop into my head here. James Harden lets Austin Rivers run too far away from him on a simple free throw line cut and James Harden has no spatial awareness to speak of defensively. Rivers gets the ball from Jordan, Harden feels like closing out isn’t fun, and then gives a half-hearted attempt at flailing at the shot. Rivers makes it and the Clippers are off and running.

This final play illustrates a large problem for the Houston Rockets in this series. They simply do not try at all to stop the ball in the open floor. On this play, all that happens is Rivers gets a rebound, pushes it up the floor, and gets a layup while James Harden and Jason Terry stand around like lost puppies. Harden attempts to pick Rivers up in transition but lazily slides towards him instead of aggressively getting into a defensive stance and making him give the ball up. Rivers throws in another right-to-left crossover, gets Harden on his hip, and lays it in as Terry goes flying by him in a pathetic excuse for defense.

It seems easy to point out Austin Rivers and J.J. Redick had great games so the Rockets guards were terrible defensively but it went just beyond those guys scoring. There were plays where baskets happened just because Houston refused to come off of them and help out on roll men or even Chris Paul in the mid-range. Houston’s defense was shoddy all night long and has been a problem all series. It seems like the Clippers can get whatever shot they want against this defense and the lack of perimeter stoppers has basically hampered the Rockets. Perhaps the Patrick Beverley injury really was a killer. We honestly have no idea. But the way the Rockets have been playing through the first three games, and especially in Game 3, lends itself to the notion that perhaps Houston is just in a mode they can’t shake.

So far in the three games against the Los Angeles Clippers, the Rockets have a Defensive Rating of 116.5 whenever Jason Terry is on the floor. When both Terry and James Harden share the court, the number increases to 118.8. That’s in 78 minutes together through three games. It is, by far, the worst of any duo on Houston that has played at least 30 minutes this series. The duo can’t guard anyone and it puts a great deal of stress on the frontline of Trevor Ariza, Terrence Jones, and Dwight Howard. I’m interested to see in the future if Kevin McHale decides to use Corey Brewer more instead of Jason Terry because, clearly, Terry is a problem. But then Brewer’s lack of offensive spacing becomes an issue. It’s a Catch-22 in a lot of ways. As of right now, the Rockets have to figure out how to guard the Clippers shooters, stop the Clippers pick-and-roll, and contain Blake Griffin. They might be able to do two of the three but all three seems impossible. Their season hangs in the balance in Game 4. It’s up to them to make adjustments.