The Los Angeles Lakers fanbase hates them. A lot. The media hates the way they “flop” around and try to draw fouls at every turn. Or, at the very least, what they perceive to be that very thing. People hate the way their center smiles and jokes around on the court or on the bench. There are those who think they’re overrated and undeserving of the national acclaim that they garnered throughout the year. There are others who believe they should be criticized more for the way they play. Of course, you have no idea who I’m talking about. Are we talking about the Los Angeles Clippers or the Houston Rockets? The answer is both. They’re both loved and hated; reviled and revered. Starting on Monday night in Houston, the two teams will lock horns in a crucial series that will determine who gets to go to the Western Conference Finals. This series might be even more important than that, though.
The Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Clippers are along the same wavelength as far as their stature in the NBA landscape. Both are trying to break out from behind the shadow of those who stand in front of them, namely the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Lakers. In the case of the Rockets, they’re led by a superstar that defies description. James Harden uses his knowledge and wiles to counteract what opponents try to do. Harden probes expertly with his dribble, poking and prodding defenses to get them off-balance before striking with his honed craft to draw fouls at rates we’ve seldom seen. He extends his arms and draws defenders into his realm with the greatest of ease.
To combat “The Beard”, the Clippers will have to use a bevy of defenders on him but perhaps the most adept at doing the deed is the one you wouldn’t think; J.J. Redick. Due to him not being a great athlete, Redick knows his limitations as a defender and doesn’t reach or paw at Harden’s moves. That’s half the battle. Offensively, just getting Harden to guard you is another part of the equation in tiring him out. Redick might be able to succeed there, as well. Either way, each team’s shooting guard does their job in very different ways. One is an elite and crafty scorer who uses your aggressiveness to his advantage. The other is the Energizer Bunny who keeps zooming around screens to wear you out before unleashing a remarkably accurate jumper.
There are other intriguing positional matchups in this series but perhaps the one that’ll provide the most excitement will feature the two towering men in the middle. In the first round series against the Dallas Mavericks, Dwight Howard patrolled the paint and racked up 3.0 blocks and 1.6 steals per game while pulling down 13.8 rebounds and chipping in 16.6 points. The Mavericks had no answer for anything he did. His counterpart, DeAndre Jordan, also pulled down just north of thirteen rebounds a game and finished with 13.3 officially while also having 12.6 points and 2.6 blocks against San Antonio. In a lot of ways, they’re mirror images of each other. Howard is about two-and-a-half years older than Jordan but both can jump out the gym to finish alley-oops – although Jordan is the bouncier of the two right now – and throw balls out of the paint with thunderous blocks. And, obviously, there’s the free throw woes they each endure.
Whether or not you want to view Blake Griffin’s all-around performance in the first round series against San Antonio as one of the great all-time playoff performances, that’s your prerogative. What’s not up for debate is that he has his hands full this series going up against Terrence Jones and Josh Smith. Both present unique challenges. Both Jones and Smith can step out to shoot threes – which you’ll welcome – or go inside to score. Both struggle from the line and both can rebound well in traffic. The rebounding battle will be huge in this series and the Clippers will need Griffin to carry his performance on the glass against San Antonio into this series against Houston in order for the team to be successful.
The wing matchup presents a tale of two veteran players who made their bones as a defenders and have tried to venture out into the offensive business. Trevor Ariza and Matt Barnes are similar yet different. Ariza’s the better defender but Barnes is the glue to the Clippers team. When the team needed him to step up on the brink of elimination, he did. Twice. Ariza had a solid season offensively but a terrible start to the playoffs. He’s not there for the offense, though. Ariza’s there for the defense. And he provides it better than any other perimeter player in this series. Think of him as a less menacing Kawhi Leonard. After seven brutal games of dealing with that monster, the Clippers now have to deal with the slightly tamer version.
The million ton gorilla in the room is Chris Paul’s health. There’s no word yet on whether or not he’ll play in Game 1 outside of him being listed as questionable. Without him, the Clippers are up a creek without a paddle to aid them. The Rockets counter with veteran shot maker Jason Terry. He did his job against Dallas and the Clippers cannot afford to let him get wide open corner three after wide open corner three like the Mavericks did. Paul’s generalship is a must in this series and the Clippers simply cannot survive without him. This is where the problem presents itself. Paul just finished eviscerating the Spurs on one leg and turned the ball over just twice in the last three games despite touching it 420 times. His craftiness and enthralling nature knows no bounds.
Doc Rivers and Kevin McHale are two of the game’s most well-known coaches. They both were former players and are both trying to take their teams to heights they’ve rarely attained. The Clippers were here last year; on the cusp of a Western Conference Finals berth. The Rockets are in the second round for the first time since 2009 and just the second time in the last 18 seasons. This is pretty uncharted territory for this group. Both are looking at the other and sizing up how they might be able to defeat their opponent. Both have deficiencies. Both are injured. Both are battered. And both have a ton to prove.
Whether this series goes four games or seven games is up to the reader’s imagination. Anything could happen in this series and it wouldn’t be a surprise. Given the nature of each team’s injury report, this is going to be a series of sheer will and determination. Each team is hurt. The Clippers, as stated, are dealing with a serious injury to Chris Paul. There’s also Glen Davis’ ankle. On the flip side, the Houston Rockets are without both Donatas Motiejunas and Patrick Beverley. Both players were key cogs in their season and are huge losses, especially in this matchup. It makes every single player that much more important for them.
For the next two weeks, two teams – who have been left in the shadows to pick up table scraps as they fell off the plate of their big brother – will engage in glorious battle. The winner, should they be determined and good enough, will then earn a spot in the Western Conference Finals. For Los Angeles, it’d be a franchise first. For Houston, it’d be the first time since 1997. The future landscape of the Western Conference could be forged in this series. The winner will likely get a meeting with the Golden State Warriors, a team who has been historically great this season. The loser has to digest this result for months as they ponder what transpires next. A win is the goal. Failure will not be tolerated by either side.