The Big Picture
We’re less than a week away from the beginning of the NBA Playoffs, and the matchups are set for the L.A. Clippers and the Houston Rockets. The Rockets are a lock for the 3-seed in the Western Conference. For the Clippers, however, they have just two remaining games, including tonight’s matchup, and either game could decide the difference between owning home court advantage versus not. The 4th place Clippers and the 5th place Utah Jazz, both sporting 49-31 records and certain to face off in the first round, are in a virtual tie and vying for the chance to open the postseason on their own hardwood.
Despite the absence of Austin Rivers, arguably the Clippers’ best secondary man, their postseason rotation has been established. The minutes of starters Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, J.J. Redick, and Luc Mbah a Moute have all increased. Jamal Crawford, Marreese Speights, and Raymond Felton round out the Clippers’ bench unit along with Rivers, who will undoubtedly be a major contributor once his hamstring heals. Nothing remains more important for the Clippers than succeeding in the playoffs. But tonight, the magnitude of the present is still very real.
Both remaining games for the Houston Rockets are merely formalities. They are sitting firmly in 3th place in the West, and are certain that they will be facing the 6th place Oklahoma City Thunder during the first round of the playoffs. There’s definitely some time left for James Harden to try and garner some attention as the deadline approaches for MVP voting (though we can all probably agree that the historic season of Russell Westbrook has created significant separation in the minds of voters). Trevor Ariza, Nene, Lou Williams, and Sixth Man of the Year candidate Eric Gordon are all slated to miss tonight’s matchup due to either rest or minor injury. It’s easy to see the Rockets in this particular position after watching their development all season long. But nobody saw this coming less than a year ago.
When the 2015-16 season came to a close for the Rockets, unceremoniously, in a first round exit against the Golden State Warriors, there were a lot of questions about their future. Head coach Kevin McHale had been fired early in the season and replaced by then-assistant coach J.B. Bickerstaff. The Rockets finished the regular season 41-41, barely making their way into the 2016 postseason. Team chemistry was visibly poor, Dwight Howard would enter unrestricted free agency, and the coaching situation remained. Howard left for Atlanta, and with a bevy of youth at their disposal, a rebuild certainly seemed possible. But it wasn't long before the Rockets made offensive guru Mike D’Antoni their head coach, which set the rest of the 2016 offseason in motion.
The signings of oft-injured Gordon, Nene, and Ryan Anderson were generally perceived as high-risk, moderate-reward deals. And D’Antoni’s last head coaching experience, with the Los Angeles Lakers, was pretty forgettable. But with the Rockets, he finally had all the tools at his disposal, including the support of a like-minded general manager in Daryl Morey, to best-run the uptempo, high-barrage offense he’d helped pioneer. The sharpshooting of Gordon, Anderson, and Ariza (and later, trade deadline acquisition Williams), coupled with the youth and athleticism of Patrick Beverley, Clint Capela, Sam Dekker, and Montrezl Harrell would help make up a team that could outscore anyone on any given night. Also, there’s Harden.
Everyone knew that Harden would be the centerpiece for the Rockets going forward, but it’s difficult to imagine that anyone knew he would have the absolutely amazing season that he’s had. Averaging 29.3 points, (league-leading) 11.3 assists, 8.1 rebounds, and 1.5 steals per game on 43.9% shooting from the field, 34.6% from beyond the arc, and 85.1% from the free throw line (on 10.9 attempts per game), Harden has significantly transformed his style of play. He has transcended from an offensive force to an elite scorer and facilitator. Harden has led his team to home court advantage, a 54-26 record thus far, and he and the Rockets don’t appear to be done any time soon. They have transformed into an offensive juggernaut, making the rest of the league take notice as the most important stretch of the season awaits.
Playing for the Postseason
Typically, it is most important to explore facets of both strength and weakness when previewing any matchup, especially one involving a worthy adversary with the postseason just days away. But between roster health and the knowledge of first rounds foes, we will only examine two particular areas of emphasis that the Clippers must focus on which will apply to all rounds of the playoffs: rebounds and assists.
Of all 8 teams in the Western Conference that will be playing beyond April 12th, 4 rank in the top-10 in the NBA in rebounding. The Thunder rank 1st (46.5), the Rockets rank 7th (44.4), the Warriors rank 9th (44.3), and the Spurs rank 10th (43.9) in rebounds per game. Of these 4 teams, all but the Thunder own home court advantage heading into the first round. So where do the 4th place Clippers rank? Well, they’re 22nd in the entire league in rebounds per game, averaging just 43 per game.
There are a couple important factors to note here. First, we must consider that the difference between the best rebounding team and the Clippers is a mere 3.5 rebounds per game; while that statement alone may seem to downplay the significance in ranking rebounds, it’s more important to recognize that it illustrates a missed opportunity and the presence of a trend. Secondly, the Clippers rank 10th in the league in defensive rebounds per game (34.0); while this means they are limiting second-chance opportunities for their opponents pretty well, it also means they are more-significantly limiting their own second-chance opportunities because they conversely rank 24th in the league in offensive rebounds per game (8.9).
If the Clippers can find better ways to box-out opponents, pay attention to the trajectories of misses, and utilize their front court size and athleticism enough to grab just 3.5 more boards per contest, they give themselves a chance to do a whole lot. The Clippers largely favor transition defense rather than going for offensive rebounds; the focus on defense is certainly understandable, but the ability for large and athletic players like Jordan and Griffin, who score very efficiently, to get from one end of the floor to the other rather quickly, makes the extra effort for offensive rebounds worth the gamble. Rebounds provide instant possessions, and thus, a gateway in to increasing scoring opportunities while limiting those for their opponents.
Once again, much like with rebounding, the best in the West share the ball well. In the entire league, the Warriors rank 1st (30.5), the Rockets rank 3rd (25.1), and the Spurs rank 6th (24.0) in assists per game. The Clippers rank 15th with 22.4 assists per game, putting them in the top half of the league but not close enough to rival those who would stand in the way of an NBA Finals appearance. So what will it take to push them ahead in the playoffs? It will require a multifaceted effort.
No team, from top to bottom, can defend in one-on-one situations for every possession in an entire series, let alone in an entire game. The reliance upon defensive help is a very important part of the game in the NBA. The brilliance of individual scorers in isolation, the savvy of head coaches in exploiting mismatches, and the rise in position-less basketball have all played a part in making defensive strategy important. They are also the very same factors that allow teams to find ways to move the ball well given the right circumstances. Outside of Paul and Griffin, there aren’t any Clippers players who possess the ability to draw a double-team while looking to facilitate; consequently, the Clippers find themselves in predictable half court offensive sets that prompt ill-timed, well contested shots.
Outside of DeAndre Jordan, every Clipper in their playoff rotation can capably score from beyond the arc and from the free throw line. In addition, every player outside of Redick can score efficiently moving downhill. This all means that the Clippers can spread the floor while being aggressive in the paint. They’re the best in the league at drawing fouls (22.4 per game), illustrating that they always pose a threat to defenders. Using all of this information, the Clippers must capitalize upon the ability to kick the ball out when there’s pressure down low, or throw the ball down low when there’s pressure along the perimeter. We have yet to see this sort of ball movement consistently this season, but we also have yet to see the added advantage of consistently staggering Paul and Griffin when their minutes are significantly increased. If the Clippers can manage to find open scorers just a few more times per game, looking to move the ball just a bit more every game, they give themselves a much better chance against the elite teams in the West.
The Rockets, albeit not at full health, still provide the Clippers a chance to find ways to shore up their rebounding and ball movement in an environment where they must still compete for a win that counts.
Beyond their remaining regular season matchups, beyond their first round matchups, and beyond their possible second round matchups, the L.A. Clippers and the Houston Rockets have a chance at meeting in the Western Conference Finals this year. For the Rockets, it will mean bypassing the Thunder and likely the Spurs. For the Clippers, it will mean bypassing the Jazz and likely the Warriors. It’s a tough road ahead for both teams, and health heading into the playoffs is extremely important. We won’t get the chance to see either team at full health tonight, but it must be viewed as a potential playoff preview as well as an opportunity for the Clippers to explore their advantages and their vulnerabilities against a formidable Western Conference opponent.