So, last night did not go as planned. Instead of celebrating the franchise’s first Western Conference Finals berth, we’re left hoping the team can turn it around in time for Game 6 on Thursday night. After dismantling the Houston Rockets in the third and fourth games of the series, the Los Angeles Clippers went ice cold from the field on uncontested shots in Game 5, opted to not hustle as much on the defensive glass, and generally got beat on all the hustle plays needed to win a closeout game. Games like this happen. Yes, even in the playoffs. We saw it happen in Game 3 in the first round against the San Antonio Spurs. Not shockingly, it happened once again on the road in Texas. At least this time the Clippers still have a chance to win the series in the next game. Before looking forward, we should take a look back at what transpired in Game 5.
The clinching game of a series isn’t always easy. Not every game is going to be Game 6 of the Chicago Bulls and Milwaukee Bucks series where one team just rolls over into an early grave while the other shovels dirt onto their corpse. Last night proved just how tough a game can be against a team with their backs against the wall in front of their home crowd and riding a wave of emotion. The energy was with Houston all night and they made all the key plays to win the game while the Clippers missed out on their plentiful opportunities.
This is the first possession of the game for the Houston Rockets. It comes after a Dwight Howard foul that saw DeAndre Jordan miss two free throws and Matt Barnes miss a layup. Truth be told, the Clippers defend this play very well for the first 18 seconds or so of the shot clock. Blake Griffin and J.J. Redick do a good job of stopping James Harden’s drive to the rim after a quick pick-and-roll with Josh Smith. The Rockets then kick Harden into another pick-and-roll – this time with Howard – and the Clippers stop that one pretty well. The issue for the Clippers comes once Jason Terry kicks the ball to Trevor Ariza. Matt Barnes foolishly jumps and leaves his feet to contest Ariza’s head fake. By doing this, it allows Ariza to just dribble past him with ease. There’s zero contest from three Clippers players after that as Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan just watch Ariza finish with a dunk. It went from good defense to extremely poor defense very quickly and that cannot happen in a game like this.
You can give up dunks. The killer here isn’t so much the dunk but the effort of attempting to stop the dunk. For two-thirds of the shot clock, the Clippers defended exceptionally well. They walled off everything Houston wanted to do. Ariza was essentially their fifth option after two Harden pick-and-rolls, a Howard post-up, and a Terry corner three. The Clippers made the Rockets adjust on offense and, while the Clippers adjusted well initially on defense, Los Angeles just stopped playing hard on the possession once Barnes left his feet. Had Griffin or Jordan contested Ariza’s drive, it would have forced Ariza to kick the ball to Josh Smith, who was standing roughly 20 feet away. You’d rather have a Smith jumper than an Ariza dunk there.
This was the very next possession in the game and showcased some issues that the Clippers had all game. Blake Griffin inbounds the ball to DeAndre Jordan at halfcourt, who then passes back to Griffin. In a smart move, Griffin attacks off the dribble without hesitation and takes it right into the body of Dwight Howard. Had that resulted in a foul, it would have been Howard’s second in the first minute or so. That would have been a game-changer. Instead, Howard stays straight up and defends it pretty well. Griffin gets the rebound, misses the putback, and then gets another rebound before resetting with a pass to Redick in the corner. Redick throws a nice ball fake, drives baseline, and kicks it out to a wide open Paul for three.
Throughout the year, we have seen the Clippers have an issue of bypassing open shots just because they want a better one. It hurt them in this case. At least a little bit. Paul’s shot was wide open and Terry wasn’t going to give a good contest in time. That’s a shot Paul has to take. Instead, he kicks it to Redick who bypasses another semi-open shot and dribbles into a wide open floater. This is a shot Redick has hit a lot this season but failed to knockdown right here. To compound the issue, Jordan picks up a big first foul going over the back of Howard. This is a killer possession. Griffin misses a shot while trying to get a second foul on Howard, misses a tip-in, and then the Clippers passed up on two open shots only to miss a third open shot before their most important defensive player picked up a foul. It’s the little things that mount up in games like this and this possession had a lot of little things that turned into one big thing.
On the ensuing possession, Houston sees a break go their way after the Clippers spoiled one on the other end. The possession starts with Terry dumping the ball into the post to Harden. They run off ball action for Terry to clear space and kick it to Smith at the free throw line. Smith is defended like how you should defend him which is to keep him close but bait him into a shot. Barnes semi-contests with help from Jordan and Smith missed the shot. Everything after this is the issue. No one contains the shooter and boxes him out. Instead, both Barnes and Jordan just watch the ball. Griffin is wrestling with Howard down low and can’t get to the rebound as Smith cuts in and steals it away. This is sort of on Jordan here. He got caught just watching the ball and it took a right bounce for Smith to recover it. Smith gets the rebound, throws up a left-handed hook shot, and scores. You’ll live with Josh Smith making shots but you cannot, under any circumstance, give he or Houston multiple looks at them.
Due to the camera angle, it’s tough to tell what happens a little bit here. Thanks a lot, TNT. We hate you. Anyways, the ball is brought up the court by Ariza who gets a screen from Howard. In a smart play, Ariza turns down the screen and crosses over the other way which leaves Barnes reaching for air. Jordan tries to shift over and stop him but Ariza cuts back to the left a little bit and throws up a wild layup that misses. On this play, no one dug down to prevent Howard rolling to the rim for the putback dunk. While it seems easy to blame Barnes for not switching onto Howard, the real culprit is Griffin. He’s too close to Smith initially and merely taps Howard as Howard walks by him. Had Griffin played this smarter, and harder, he would darted in front of Howard on the roll to wall him off from a rebound instead of just tapping him and letting him go. You can’t get half effort in games like this.
As an aside, it’s great to see Craig Sager back. On the flip side, I hate this damn picture-in-picture stuff. On this possession, the Rockets let Pablo Prigioni bring the ball up the court and hit Corey Brewer on a simple curl. Brewer then dumps the ball down to Howard who passes to Prigioni before receiving a quick pass back. As Prigioni clears out, Howard performs a beautiful baseline spin move that Jordan flails at. Howard misses the layup but Jordan and Griffin stay rooted to the ground rather than actually jumping for the rebound. And it once again costs the Clippers as Jordan picks up his second foul after Howard attempts to go back up with the offensive rebound. Griffin’s really at fault here. Smith isn’t even a factor in this play. Griffin makes no attempt to challenge Howard’s shot and then just stands there as the rebound bounces off the rim. Had Griffin just competed harder here, the Clippers get the rebound, Jordan doesn’t get a foul, and they still have the lead. Once again, it’s the little things that add up into being one very huge thing. And it’s all effort type stuff.
Yes, there are a lot of first quarter plays. That’s kind of where the game got away from the Clippers a little bit in the effort department. It all started early. Harden brings the ball up the court, gets a ball screen from Howard, and throws up a wild shot attempt against Glen Davis while looking for a foul. He doesn’t get the foul but Houston gets the next best thing which is a Dwight Howard offensive rebound as Blake Griffin once again gets beat. Griffin does well early on to pinch down and help on Howard’s roll. But what transpires after that is depressing. Howard uses a simple swim move to get past Griffin, grabs the ball, and just lays it back in. Plays like this dominated the early going of the game and it sowed the seeds for what was going to transpire.
You don’t mind if your team is getting blown out but still competing hard. At least you have something to build off of and look forward to as the game goes along. Early in this game, especially the first quarter, the Clippers played with a lack of energy that you hate to see. While the main guy seems to be Blake Griffin here, there were a lot of guys who just did a lot of little things wrong in the effort department. The entire team needs to function together but one guy failing to compete hard can bring the whole machine down. The sum is greater than its parts. Effort plays win playoff games a lot of the time. I’m sure it sounds like a broken record by now but little things do add up. Had the Clippers made an open shot on that one Redick floater, Jordan doesn’t pick up a foul. Had Griffin or Jordan grabbed the rebound on the Howard putback that he got fouled on, Jordan doesn’t pick up a second foul. Little things turn into huge things quite easily.
Another problem for the Clippers this game was missed open shots. With a chance to tie or take the lead late in the first half, the Clippers run a quick pick-and-roll with Paul and Spencer Hawes. Paul splits through the double team and passes to a cutting Griffin. In a great display of vision, Griffin finds Matt Barnes wide open in the corner after Corey Brewer closed onto Griffin. Barnes misses the corner three, Harden gets the rebound, and gets fouled by Paul which leads to two free throws and a larger lead. The pass from Griffin to Barnes could have been better. That’s apparent. But the multitude of missed open shots added up, especially the open threes the team missed.
One of the other issues the Clippers had was helping off of the wrong guy. This actually killed them quite a bit in the San Antonio series. Harden has the ball to start out and runs a pick-and-roll with Josh Smith. Griffin hedges to trap Harden who still finds Smith with the pass. Smith passes to Terry after attempting to make a move to the basket that Griffin stops. Terry receives a screen from both Howard and Smith before hitting Smith on the slip. Griffin does another good job of stopping Smith’s drive until Matt Barnes inexplicably leaves Trevor Ariza wide open in the corner and pays for it. This is an issue that compounded itself. There was no reason to leave Ariza in the corner after Griffin had played Smith well twice on drives. Barnes gets caught ball-watching and the rest is history. The Clippers want Smith to turn into a driver and attempt to score. It only benefits them. Allowing Smith to be a creator isn’t ideal.
Remember the first play early in the game where the Clippers played defense very well until the final few seconds? Well they play defense extremely well for the entire shot clock on this. The issue comes after the shot. Prigioni passes to Terrence Jones and Griffin tries to shoot the gap and steal the pass. Jones gets it under control, drives a little bit, and finds Corey Brewer in the corner. Brewer has to drive baseline after a good closeout by Jamal Crawford and kicks it out to Prigioni. Austin Rivers closes out very well and forces the Rockets into a pick-and-roll with Prigioni and Howard. Jordan defends Prigioni well and Rivers sticks with Howard on the roll adequately for someone his size. Prigioni finds Jones in the corner, Griffin gives a solid contest, and Jones misses.
As you’ve heard numerous times throughout your life, a defensive possession doesn’t end until the rebound is secure. That’s true. And the Clippers failed to rebound the ball at a solid rate after forcing a miss or tough shot. Brewer slices in from the corner and dunks over both Austin Rivers and Jamal Crawford. Neither guy attempted to put a body onto Brewer. It’s tough to fault either one since they both helped on Howard’s roll to the basket. Instead of blaming them, you can blame the team. They got too caught up with Howard and should have realized he was too far under the hoop. DeAndre Jordan could have also dug down more than he did and made a play for the ball. Simply, the team got complacent once the shot went up and didn’t fight for the position that was necessary to end the possession.
Despite all of that stuff happening earlier in the game, the Clippers were still in a position to make this a game in the fourth quarter. At one point, they even got it down to 12 points and had the ball. On this possession, the Clippers initiate out of a side-out-of-bounds. Griffin gets the ball, gets double-teamed, and finds Chris Paul at the top of the arc for an outlet. Paul does the smart thing and rotates it one pass to the right. It results in a great look for Jamal Crawford. As was the case on most of the Clippers open shots in this game, it was off the mark. Had it gone down, the lead is cut to 11 with 11 minutes to go and the crowd in Houston is probably moaning and groaning. Instead, he misses and Houston breathes a sigh of relief.
This series is still there for the Clippers to win. The problem with letting a team win a Game 5 at home to draw within 3-2 in the series is that it not only gives them some confidence after being massacred in the two prior games, but it also limits the number of games that you have to negate the randomness of the postseason. If this gets to a Game 7, anything can happen. And it usually does in a Game 7 when a random roleplayer steps up and helps his team get to the next round. We saw it in Game 7 of the Spurs series when Matt Barnes had 17 points, including the massive game-tying three late in the fourth. It’s the little things. They all add up in a huge way.
A lot of the stuff going into Game 6 is competing. You have to want to hustle and try and get dirty. You have to want to play hard every second you’re on the court. That’s all there is to it. As was said during the Spurs series, there is no such thing as "half effort." You either play your heart out or get off the court. You don’t rotate lazily, you don’t jog back, and you don’t casually stroll around on offense or defense. Every definitive action you make must come with a sense of urgency and hustle and heart. The Clippers cannot allow this to get to a Game 7. That’d be a disaster. They need the rest and they need the series to be over. The Rockets are playing with their backs against the wall. On Thursday night, the Clippers need to match their intensity and hustle. Or else we’re headed back to Houston for a Game 7 that no one here wants to see.