That sucked. The Clippers were mostly bad on both ends in this one, and while the game was relatively within reach for much of the 2nd half if the Clippers made a sustained run, it never really felt like they had one in them on this night.
The Clippers started off poorly right from the get go, as they took rushed and nervous looking shots that dented all parts of the rim but never seemed to go in. Meanwhile, the Rockets looked energetic and active, and even though they only led by a couple points in the early 1st, the game seemed to be in their favor. Things really took a downturn when DJ picked up his 2nd foul with 4:30 to go, as Dwight Howard dominated Glen Davis for the rest of the period, grabbing offensive rebounds and putting them back in on seemingly every Rockets possession. They were only down 27-22 to end the period, but it seemed like more.
The 2nd unit immediately missed a jumper and turned the ball over, leading to four quick points the other way. Chris Paul was rushed back and canned a jumper, but just as things seemed to calm down, DJ picked up his 3rd foul at the 9:15 mark and was removed for the rest of the half. With no Jordan, the Clippers defense became a sieve, and the Rockets found open look after open look all over the court. Harden was parading to the hoop, Ariza was getting open 3s, and the Rockets' lead swelled to the mid teens. The one good sign was that Spencer Hawes made positive contributions on offense, draining a couple nice runner/hook shots and converting a long 3 to beat the shot clock. Down 63-48 at halftime, the Clippers could nonetheless hope for a better 2nd half as long as DeAndre avoided more fouls.
Sadly, an Ariza 3, followed by a Matt Barnes blown shot at the rim and a Josh Smith layup, stretched the lead to 19, and even though there was still most of a half remaining, it was hard to see the Clippers clawing back. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin kept the Clippers within arm's length of the Rockets, and Chris in particular looked very spry, darting in and out of traffic and converting several buckets at the rim. The last few minutes of the 3rd quarter saw the Clippers finally get a bit of a rhythm going, but a quick hack-a-DJ stopped that, and the Clippers remained unable to slow the Rockets.
The first minute of the 4th quarter summed up the entire game: CP3, Redick, and Jamal all missed open 3 pointers, and despite drawing quick fouls on Houston, this only enabled the use of hack-a-DJ once more. Meanwhile, Josh Smith made a midrange jumper and then a 3 on consecutive possessions, which is the easiest possible way to know this just wasn't the game for the Clippers. The game then descended into a hackfest, as Doc went at Josh Smith, Dwight Howard, and then Corey Brewer! Despite a poor sample size of free throw shooting in the playoffs, Brewer was a solid 74% in the regular season, and made 3 of 4. DJ was removed and the hack-a-thon ended, but despite Blake scoring easily in the post, the Clippers kept giving up open shots time and again. At 3:43, the starters were taken out, and Doc waved the white flag.
Terrible Shooting Night- JJ Redick, Jamal Crawford, Matt Barnes, and Austin Rivers combined to go 9-41 from the field and 4-22 from three, but if anything it was worse than that because Rivers hit a couple shots in garbage time. When the Clippers main wing and reserve shooting is that bad, they are never going to win games barring miraculous performances from everyone else on the roster. Most of the shots were open as well, they just never fell. If that statistic read even 13-42 and 6-22, this game would have looked a lot closer, and those are still very poor numbers.
DeAndre Jordan in foul trouble- DJ's foul trouble in the first half was what enabled the Rockets to start getting into gear on offense, and fittingly enough, he was a +/- of 0 on the night, the only Clipper not in the negatives. He simply can't get into foul trouble: the Clippers' defense falls apart without him on the court, especially against Dwight Howard, who overpowered all the other Clippers thrown against him. His offensive rebounding and finishing ability on the pick and roll is super valuable as well, and despite Hawes' good minutes, he just can't replace what DJ can do.
Spencer Hawes- Speaking of Hawes, he was solid again tonight. Spencer was the third best Clipper (on the offensive end at least), making 5-7 shots and 1-2 from 3. While he couldn't do much to slow the Rockets attacking the basket, that is not his game and will never be. For what Spencer Hawes is, he contributed well in game 5.
Clippers' Stars Show Up- The only Clippers to truly stand out tonight were Blake Griffin (30 and 16), and Chris Paul (22 and 10), who consistently made shots and plays to keep the Clippers' heads above water. Paul looked pretty close to 100% healthy, which bodes well for the rest of the series, and while Blake looked tired at points, he was still highly effective. If both of them play this well again on Thursday, the Clippers should win.
Poor Defense- The Clippers allowed the Rockets to shoot 54% from the field, which is never going to win games, even in the regular season. The Jordan foul issue was part of this, but overall the Clippers just seemed slow and out of sorts on rotations, and guys like Jason Terry and Trevor Ariza were getting open looks way too frequently. The other half of this is that all the Clipper bricks led to Rockets transition buckets, and if shots fall, the defense will subsequently improve as well.
McHale's Adjustments- So far I have only discussed the Clippers, and that is unfair to the Rockets, who actually showed up to play tonight. They started out with energy and focus and maintained it the whole night. McHale's start of Josh Smith over Terrence Jones wasn't a world changer in my opinion, but they did both play pretty well tonight, so maybe he had something there. His bigger switch was not using full scale hack-a-Jordan, instead reserving it for whenever the Clippers were making a run. This seemed much more effective than his previous tactics, but I still think it disrupts the flow for the using team just as much.
Confidence for game 6- While tonight was obviously worrying in that it puts the pressure on the Clippers to win at home, I think that Clippers' fans can remain fairly confident for game 6. The wings and guards almost certainly won't shoot that badly again, as 9-41 is remarkably poor. The Rockets were defending harder tonight, but the Clippers were getting open looks, and those should continue through the remainder of the series. The other key was DJ getting in foul trouble early, which he simply can't do. I trust him to be smarter in following games, because the series depends on it. At home, and with the crowd behind them, the Clippers' role players will hopefully step up as they have shown they can do.