It's no secret that I've been quite confident regarding the chances of the Los Angeles Clippers against the Houston Rockets in the second round of the NBA Playoffs. And after three games, two in Houston where the Clippers played without Chris Paul and now a blowout win in Los Angeles, the 2-1 L.A. lead seems to be justifying my confidence.
And it's really no secret as to why I'm feeling this way. In the James Harden era, the Clippers have completely dominated the Rockets.
Including these playoffs, the Clippers have now beaten the Rockets nine times in the dozen games since Houston traded for Harden. Houston's three wins came by a grand total of 13 points, one was Wednesday when the Clippers played without Paul and one came when they played without Blake Griffin.
A big part of the winning formula for the Clippers has been their ability to contain Harden. Obviously Harden has been Houston's most important player since his arrival, and it's no surprise that if he plays poorly the team will suffer. In fact, Harden has always struggled against the Clippers, even going back to his days in Oklahoma City.
Looking at career splits, Harden has shot just .353 against the Clippers in 20 regular season games -- he's shooting .456 in this series, but even that number has been fairly empty, including some padding after the Rockets were down 32 in Game 3.
I can quote the numbers backwards and forwards. And as for this series, given that the Clippers are able to shut down Harden, while the Rockets have no hope of stopping the Clippers, the outcome seems like a foregone conclusion.
What I can't really figure out is why? Why are the Clippers so successful at limiting the Beard, when he averaged 27.4 points per game against the league? Why are the Clippers so dominant against the Rockets when they won 56 games this season, exactly the same number as the Clippers against the same competition? Particularly considering that wing defense would seem to be one of the Clippers most significant shortcomings. It's not like they're throwing Tony Allen (or even Quinton Ross for that matter) at Harden.
There's really no definitive answer of course. Twenty three games is a pretty small sample size, and this could all just be random noise in the numbers -- maybe Harden has just had a series of off days against L.A. Maybe when he's back in his hometown he parties with his old high school buddies and stays out too late (which wouldn't explain bad games in Houston).
After Game 1, Justin Russo did a fantastic job of breaking down the film of what the Clippers did in that game to keep Harden in check. I love that Justin's around to do all that hard work, but that's not my style. I'm looking for the simple answer here.
Listening to Doc Rivers' comments after Game 3, I now recognize at least one aspect of his grand plan against Harden -- don't reach. J.J. Redick may not be a great individual defender, but he's smart and he's disciplined. Harden is extraordinarily good at drawing fouls and getting to the line -- as the late great Chick Hearn might have said, he is great at catching defenders "with the hand in the cookie jar." But if you never reach, Harden can't throw his arms at you and get a cheap trip to the line. (He can however grab your hand and make it look like you reached, as Chris Paul found out in the third quarter.)
Take a look at the shooting percentage numbers this season. Harden's overall field goal percentage of .440 ranks him 27th among 87 guards who played at least 24 minutes per game. He also takes a lot of threes and makes them at a decent clip, so when you factor that in, his effective field goal percentage rises to .511 and he ranks 19th. That's an OK number, but it's not off the charts, especially when you're discussing the player who was second in the MVP voting.
It's Harden's ability to get to the free throw line that truly sets him apart. When you add in free throws, Harden's true shooting percentage shoots up to .605, third among guards behind Stephen Curry and Redick -- now you're talking MVP. But keep him off the line, take away those easy points, and he's a very different player.
The three times Houston has beaten the Clippers in the Harden era, he was 17-18, 15-15 and 10-12 from the line. In the nine losses, he's only gotten into double digits in free throw attempts once. So a pattern begins to emerge.
In addition to the discipline of not reaching, the Clippers also have some great defensive schemes against the Rockets, has Justin pointed out. Redick has been doing a great job not just of keeping his hands to himself, but also of staying in front of the Beard. (it should be noted that Matt Barnes and Austin Rivers have also taken turns on Harden with decent success.) But the Clippers have been providing plenty of help as well. Harden has recorded 12 and 11 assists in Houston's two losses in this series -- but the operative word there is "losses". The Clippers are willing to let other players try to beat them, and so far they haven't shown they can.
I can't help but point out that Houston doesn't exactly run the most complex offense in the world. After a seven game series against the Spurs, whose ball movement, player movement and spacing are awe-inspiring, the Clippers must feel like they're on vacation in this series. The check list doesn't go much beyond three things -- stay in front of Harden, don't reach, recover to shooters. Of course, their 56 wins belie the simplicity of their offense, but the fact is that in the postseason, when teams have a chance to game plan against you, you get exposed much more quickly. Is it a coincidence that Harden shot .376 against the Blazers in the first round last season? Sure, they beat the Dallas Mavericks in the first round. That would be Al-Farouq Aminu and J.J. Barea Dallas Mavericks.
The Clippers aren't going to get 25 points from Austin Rivers very often. They're not going to get 56 points on 27 shots from Rivers and Redick combined. But with Chris Paul easing back into the lineup with 23 minutes in Game 3, if they continue to maintain the same level of discipline on defense, avoid reaching, and keep Harden off the line, then they should be on their way to the Western Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history.