There’s really no polite way to put it. The Houston Rockets simply cannot defend the Los Angeles Clippers. Perhaps this is why head coach Kevin McHale opted to have his team start intentionally fouling DeAndre Jordan just three minutes and forty-one seconds into the game. It was a clear sign to his guys that, with or without Dwight Howard, they could not defend and stop Los Angeles’ vaunted offensive attack. The message resonated throughout the rest of the game as the Clippers proceeded to rack up 128 points. It was their third game of at least 115 points in this series and they have scored at least 109 in all four games. The Rockets inability to defend the Clippers starts where you think it would; the pick-and-roll.
If you recall, in the Film Room for Game 3, we reviewed how Houston’s guards were utterly terrible at – well – guarding. In that game, the Clippers used off-ball movement from J.J. Redick and Austin Rivers to create open shots for each of those guys en route to a systematic destruction of everything Houston holds dear. In Game 4, however, the Clippers went to their bread and butter pick-and-roll quite a bit. Houston tried their best but, just like in Game 3, it was futile.
This is the very first possession of the game and immediately we see James Harden defending Chris Paul. It was a new wrinkle that the Rockets tried to throw at the Clippers but, alas, it did not work as much as they thought it would. After an initial pass to Jordan, Paul gets the ball back, and probes against some tough Harden defense. As you can see, Harden just keeps trying to swipe at the ball in an effort to jar it loose. This has pretty much been Houston’s go-to-move all series long. Just slap and hope you poke it loose and they don’t call a foul. Corey Brewer’s done it all series.
As Paul probes against Harden, Blake Griffin runs up and sets a high screen. Paul slip passes to Griffin who then makes a pretty aggressive move to the lane. In a great showing of awareness, Griffin rolls and fakes the lob to DeAndre Jordan. This subtle move causes Dwight Howard to jump and leave his feet. As Griffin rolls, though, notice Terrence Jones pinching down to help on Jordan as Dwight rotates to help onto Griffin. This leaves Matt Barnes free to cut into the paint and finish at the rim. It was a great display of court vision by Griffin and spatial awareness by Barnes. Right off the bat, the Clippers got an incredibly easy basket thanks to the pick-and-roll.
A few minutes later, we see a quick double high screen from both Jordan and Griffin. As mentioned in the last Film Room, this was used a lot against the San Antonio Spurs in an effort to negate the length and defensive prowess of Kawhi Leonard. Here, it serves a completely different purpose. In the previous series, Paul would sprint off the screens and try to get a wide open mid-range jumper. On this occasion, all the Clippers want to do is get Griffin isolated against Harden at the free throw line for a post-up. It happens. Griffin gets the ball, faces up, looks for a passing lane, backs Harden down, and then finishes right over him without a double-team coming. Thanks to Matt Barnes and J.J. Redick moving so well without the ball, it negates Trevor Ariza and Jason Terry as help defenders. Another two points for the Clippers.
Later on in the first quarter, the Clippers run another variation of their pick-and-roll action. This time, instead of Blake Griffin being the big on the play, it’s the dusted off corpse of Spencer Hawes. He played well the game prior to this one and Doc Rivers trusted him enough to reward him with more playing time and a shot. Chris Paul walks into the frontcourt, tosses it to Hawes at the elbow, and Hawes just makes a simple handoff back to Paul. Hawes then screens Harden, who goes over the top of it, and Hawes just leaks out the back side for a massively wide open three. The threat of a pull-up mid-range jumper by Paul makes Terrence Jones have to stay at home and leaves Hawes with the wing to himself. The right play here is for Pablo Prigioni to rotate onto Hawes the second he sees the passing lane open up, but Prigioni gives some weak attempt and darts back to Rivers. While Rivers has been hot this series, you always want there to be one extra pass in this scenario. For another rotation. They didn’t and they paid.
This is another double high screen by the Clippers but a different look of it. While Griffin sets one screen, Redick runs up and sets a little rub screen so Griffin can slip to the hoop. It’s actually really ingenious. Griffin rolls, Jones darts with him, and the switch on the pick-and-roll leaves Ariza on Redick and Terry on Paul. Paul hesitation dribbles past Terry, gets Jones to jump, and hits Griffin with a dump pass for an easy bucket. James Harden was guarding Rivers in the strongside corner and gives no help or contest on the Paul drive. The right play for him is to help and then recover to Rivers. He never does this and allows Terry to get beat. Jones has to help and no one is there to help put a body on Griffin. Corey Brewer could have rotated off of Jamal Crawford in the corner but opted not to. Another easy bucket for the Clippers.
We zoom ahead to the third quarter and find a really interesting play. The Clippers start out with a simple post-up for Griffin that turns into a 4-5 pick-and-roll whose sole purpose is to get a DeAndre Jordan alley-oop. The Rockets play this very well. Terrence Jones crashes down to help on the roll by Jordan which forces Griffin to make a tough pass in the corner to Matt Barnes. Barnes swings the ball to Chris Paul and the Clippers run immediately into another pick-and-roll. Paul completes an easy bounce pass to Griffin who gets a full head of steam running to the hoop. Dwight Howard has to come over to contest the drive and Griffin makes a beautiful wraparound pass to Jordan for the dunk. Constant motion killed the Rockets all game and especially on this play.
Roughly a minute later, the Clippers go back to their double-high screen look with two bigs. The Rockets are ready for this but their help defenders play this all wrong. Trevor Ariza just sticks with Blake Griffin and passes Jordan off to Howard. This leaves Harden in no man’s land as he is already beat by Paul after the initial screen. From there, it’s a simple two-on-one situation where Paul can either go for the layup or lob it up to DeAndre Jordan. He chooses to lob it up and throws it over the head of Howard for a thunderous dunk. Had Ariza played this the right way, he would have helped on the Jordan roll and allowed Howard to contain Paul better. But he didn’t. It was a fundamental breakdown from the start. And a lot of it had to do with putting James Harden on Chris Paul in the first place. Harden couldn’t keep up and it doomed the Rockets.
It seems easy to sit here and point fingers at the Houston Rockets and say that they played bad defense and that’s the end of the story. It goes beyond that. Their entire lack of hustle was a major factor in all of this. They lacked the intensity to defend from the very beginning. On nearly every pick-and-roll between Griffin and Paul, they would just lazily switch defenders and hope for the best. There was no fighting around screens, no attempt to force a ball-handler a certain way, no nothing. They were content to just give up the areas of the court that the Clippers wanted to get to. It was an embarrassing defensive display both effort wise and process wise.
As if it already wasn’t bad enough, the Clippers then tried to add insult to injury on this play. They run the double high screen again and here’s the lazy switch by the Rockets. Ariza just passes Griffin off to Harden and Harden just passes Crawford off to Ariza. No hustle, no fire, no determination. Just lazy, problematic defense. Harden practically hugs Blake until Crawford fires a nice elbow entry pass into Griffin. Griffin immediately spins and goes right towards the hoop with ill intent. Dwight Howard rotates over and puts a hard foul onto Blake Griffin that wasn’t a flagrant; nor should it have been. The Rockets actually don’t play this too bad on the back side. Howard steps up to help on the Griffin roll, Nick Johnson digs down onto Jordan to prevent any pass, and Jason Terry doesn’t get left in the dust by Austin Rivers at all. The problem is that this went awry for Houston once they lazily switched Harden onto Griffin. It was over after that.
On this second to last clip, we see a side-out-of-bounds to Griffin at the elbow. Griffin throws a simple pass to Paul, runs over to set a screen, and bolts for the hoop. Stop if you’ve heard this one before, but the Houston Rockets completely ignore a wide open shooter. The guilty party in this case? Corey Brewer. Paul makes his move to the hoop, draws three defenders, and kicks it to a wide open Jamal Crawford in the weakside corner. Everything from Houston here is just lazy once again. Guys just standing around, not really even attempting to do much. Sure, they swipe at the ball like a cat pawing at a laser pointer but it doesn’t do much. Once Paul sees Brewer leave Crawford on an island, he makes a simple pass for a high percentage shot. Another fundamental breakdown from Houston.
This final play comes about a minute later and illustrates just how poorly Houston defends on the fly. All that happens here is Griffin gets the ball, gets out to run, passes back to Paul who is also running, and they immediately jump into their 1-4 pick-and-roll. From there, it’s academic. Nick Johnson tries to go over the top of the screen but has zero help with him. He’s the only one who even tried here. Dwight Howard just keeps backpeddling without knowing where he’s going and shows no desire to help. Pablo Prigioni surely isn’t a rim deterrent for Blake Griffin’s attempt, either. Paul executes a beautiful pocket pass to Griffin as Griffin explodes for an easy deuce. No heart, no desire, no will from Houston. I actually feel bad for Johnson here because he tries and none of his teammates thought to do the same.
It’s quite clear how the Houston Rockets made the second round. They’re a very good team. That’s pretty clear. They’ve had a great regular season and a good postseason. The problem for them is that I think they simply got too complacent after the Dallas Mavericks series. They knew Dallas couldn’t defend them at all so they didn’t even bother expending energy on defense outside of just praying Dallas would miss shots. It worked. But the Los Angeles Clippers are not the Dallas Mavericks. They feature two of the best players in the game and – even in the two games without Chris Paul – they have showcased they could score at will against Houston quite often. Houston hasn’t shown the same.
At the minimum, there is one game left in the Rockets season. At the maximum in this series, there are three. If Houston wants to play the maximum instead of the minimum, then they need to get their head out of the sand and actually defend like a team that has some pride. They’re currently running around the court like a team that has no desire to do anything but go on vacation. If the Denver Nuggets were getting slack for chanting "1-2-3, Six Weeks!" before the end of the year, then the Houston Rockets should get some slack for defending like a team that’s destined for the first pick in the draft.
There are some factors playing into this. Yes, they’re without Patrick Beverley and Donatas Motiejunas. However, that doesn’t excuse their effort. While Beverley is a pesky and tough defender, he’s not enough here. Neither is Motiejunas. The Rockets might have had the sixth best defense this season according to Defensive Rating, but they’re defending like a team that finished 26th instead. It’s pathetic and it starts with their two stars. Dwight Howard is a great defensive player but even he has shown no desire to defend quite a bit in this series. And James Harden has shown zero effort on that end of the floor. The Clippers targeted him early and often in Game 4 after Houston chose to put him onto Paul. If the Rockets don’t want their season to end, it’s up to everyone on that team to get their act together and show that they have some internal pride. If not, they’re going to stay home after Game 5 and watch the Clippers celebrate on their floor in front of their fans after another blowout.