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Preview: Clippers will try to snap losing skid in Houston

Desperate for a win, the Clippers will look to slow down the high-flying Rockets.

NBA: Houston Rockets at Los Angeles Clippers Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Big Picture

So...things aren’t going very well right now, you guys. The Clippers dropped their fourth straight game on Wednesday in New Orleans and come into tonight’s game at 22-12 on the year.

We can point to recent injuries to Blake Griffin, Chris Paul and J.J. Redick all we want, but this swoon started before any of them were missing games. L.A. is just 8-10 since that robust 14-2 start with a slew of bad losses in there. Two defeats to Indiana within the span of a week as well as an inexcusable loss to the Nets and a lackluster effort against a mediocre Pistons team kicked off this bad run of basketball for the Clips.

They seemed to have righted the ship a bit with four straight wins over some bad teams, but now things are looking quite gloomy again. Chris Paul’s return against the Pelicans was sorely needed, but even that wasn’t enough to get them over the hump.

They have some tough games coming up against Houston, OKC and Memphis, but there are also several winnable games on the schedule over the next couple of weeks. The Clippers will face Orlando, Miami, Phoenix, Sacramento, the Lakers and Minnesota all before January 20th. Sweeping those games likely isn’t a must, but they can’t afford to keep dropping games they should be winning if they have aspirations of landing in the top four of the conference.

The Clips are only 14-9 so far this season against teams below .500, so clearly those aren’t gimmes for them this season. Conversely, they’re 8-3 against teams with good records. On the flip side, the Rockets are just 6-8 against teams .500 or better, but they’ve been whipping up on lesser competition. Houston is an insane 18-1 against the league’s also-rans.

The run starts tonight in Houston against an explosive Rockets team. Here’s hoping Redick’s hamstring is good to go, because the Clippers are going to need all the shooting they can get if they want to keep up.

The Bad Guys

The Rockets have emerged this season as one of the NBA’s most surprising teams. On the heels of a lost season during which they were a loathsome, hatable mess that got their coach fired after 11 games and generally didn’t look like competing, James Harden and company are born again this season.

They fired Dwight Howard into the sun and brought Mike D’Antoni in to try and restore order. So far, so good on that front.

Houston is off to a 24-9 start and sits just four games out of the top spot in the Western Conference. They hold a game-and-a-half lead on the Clippers for the No. 3 seed heading into their first head-to-head showdown of the season.

The Rockets’ plan offensively is no mystery. The ball is going to be in James Harden’s hands more often than not. Whenever it isn’t, it’s going to be in the hands of a shooter rising up behind the three-point line.

The Rockets chuck more than 39 three-pointers a night, which is nearly six more per game than the Cavaliers, who rank second. Unlike the last few seasons when Houston took a ton of threes and shot a low percentage, their roster is actually stocked full of guys capable of knocking them down with regularity. After shooting just 34.7 percent (19th in the league) from deep last year, Houston is up to fifth this season at over 38 percent. This team attempted an NBA record 61 three-pointers in a game against the Kings earlier this month. To state the obvious, they are not afraid to let ‘em fly.

Harden has started at point guard all season, and their offense begins and ends with him. A presumptive MVP frontrunner, Harden is averaging a ridiculous 27.7 points, 11.9 assists and 7.8 rebounds per game. If Russell Westbrook wasn’t doing what he’s doing Harden might be running away with the thing right now.

Including Harden, this team has six qualified players shooting 35 percent or better from long range. Old friend Eric Gordon has emerged from the depths of a New Orleans hellscape and is playing arguably the best basketball of his career in his first season as a Rocket. The former Clipper is scoring more than 17 points a night and is connecting on better than 42 percent of his triple tries.

Houston will be vulnerable in the middle with Clint Capela sidelined, and they’ve been starting Nene and Montrezl Harrell in his place. Noted defensive sieve Ryan Anderson has also been seeing some minutes at the five of late.

The Fancy Table

Matchups to Watch

  • Who’s checking James Harden?

If CP3 isn’t yet 100% it likely isn’t fair to ask him to try and guard a guy like Harden. One would imagine Doc Rivers will try to throw Luc Mbah a Moute at him in an attempt to gain a length advantage on the defensive end. The problem there, though, is that likely means Redick has to chase 6’8” Trevor Ariza around the floor. If you’re the Clips, that’s likely a gamble you have to take if you want to try and slow Harden.

  • DeAndre should feast on the glass

The Rockets have been the fourth-best rebounding team (by rebound rate) in the league this year, though the absence of Capela leaves them without a real skyscraper in the middle. Nene is a big body, but he’s also 76 years old and probably couldn’t jump over a phone book at this point. Harrell is springy, but he’s super undersized at 6’8”.

Since Capela went out on December 19th, the Rockets are just 13th in team rebound rate. The Clips are not a good rebounding team yet again this season, but they’re better than they were last year. Doc would rather have his guys get back and defend, but freeing DeAndre Jordan to chase offensive rebounds in this matchup every now and then could prove wise. You’re putting your transition defense at risk, of course, but the Clips should be squeezing every advantage possible out of a vertically-challenged Houston front line.

Jordan is the best way to exploit that on both ends of the floor.

  • Patrick Beverley, professional irritant

***UPDATE: Doc Rivers says Chris Paul will not play tonight.***

Beverley missed Houston’s last game with a thigh problem, but he is no longer on the injury report and is expected to suit up tonight. He is the backbone of the Rockets’ defense and he has made a lucrative career out of annoying the hell out of his opponents. He has been playing stellar defense this season, and he’ll be up to his usual tricks tonight as he deals with Chris Paul.

In nine career regular season head-to-head meetings, Paul has been held to averages of 16.3 points and 10.6 assists on just 37.6 percent shooting against Beverley.

Game Day Song of Choice

The Clips are in H-Town tonight, which means, of course, we have to rock out to some Houston-based musicians to get in the mood for a Clipper victory. Beyonce is from the Bayou City, so get your head right with some of her jams.

We also would be remiss to ignore ZZ Top. I don’t know much about them other than that they are old men with big crazy beards and one of them made a few cameo appearances in Bones. Yes, I’ve seen more episodes of Bones than I’d care to admit. Blame TNT.

The Clippers will try and get back into the W column tonight in Houston. The game starts at 5 Pacific time with Ralph and Mike on Prime Ticket.