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Preview: Clippers Face Scorching Rockets in Houston

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The Clippers start a long, tough road trip in Houston, home of the seemingly unstoppable 53-14 Rockets.

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Chicago Bulls Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Game Information:

Where: Toyota Center, Houston, Texas

When: 5:00 PM Pacific Time

How to Watch: NBATV, Fox Sports Prime Ticket, AM 570 Radio

Projected Starting Lineups:

Clippers: Lou Williams, Austin Rivers, Sindarius Thornwell, Tobias Harris, DeAndre Jordan

Rockets: Chris Paul, James Harden, Trevor Ariza, PJ Tucker, Clint Capela

Injuries:

Clippers: Pat Beverley Out (Knee Surgery), Danilo Gallinari Out (Fractured Hand), Avery Bradley Out (Groin Surgery)

Rockets: Ryan Anderson Out (Hip), Brandan Wright Out (Knee Soreness)

The Big Picture:

The Clippers have capitalized on a weak early March schedule to work their way into 7th place in the Western Conference standings (albeit percentage points ahead of Utah and San Antonio). They’ve won three games in a row, and five of their last six, all against middling to weak opponents. That changes from here on out. They have one of the toughest schedules remaining in the NBA, and they will need to have all hands on deck in order to stay afloat. The Clippers have been powered in recent weeks by the frontcourt duo of DeAndre Jordan and Tobias Harris. Jordan is rebounding every missed shot in sight and dominating weaker opponents around the rim, while Harris has seemingly transformed himself overnight into an all-around star forward who can make big plays on either end of the court. They have gotten enough support from around the roster to win games, but now everyone will have to up their games a bit against tougher opposition. That means consistent effort night to night, especially on defense, and renewal of the positive attitude that has carried them through so much turmoil this season. They will need it in the weeks ahead.

The Antagonist:

The Houston Rockets might be the best team in the NBA. And not just “best record in the NBA”, but actual strongest team. They are an absolutely monstrous 36-2 when Chris Paul, James Harden, and Clint Capela all play, a winning percentage that would translate to 77-5 over the course of a full season. Those three guys are the lynchpins of their team, and all are having All-NBA seasons. Harden is having his most dominant season yet, relieved of the burden of carrying the offense every single night now that Paul is onboard. CP is putting together another vintage Chris Paul season heading towards his 33rd birthday; a maestro on the offensive end, and a pitbull on defense. Outside of his free throw rate continuing to fall, Paul has shown no real signs of aging, as he’s apparently sharing the same waters of youth as good friend LeBron James. Meanwhile, Capela is doing everything that prime DJ has done the past couple years, but is doing it at age 23 with room for growth still ahead. Houston has rounded out their team with offensive firepower (Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson), versatile 3 and D players (Luc Mbah a Moute, Trevor Ariza, and PJ Tucker), and perfectly solid veterans (Nene, Joe Johnson), and seem to have a real chance at beating the hitherto unslayable Warriors in the playoffs. They are deadly.

Notes:

  • Lou Williams’ Outside Shooting: As I wrote about a few days ago, Lou Williams shot has been broken since the start of February. He shot just 1-7 from three against the Bulls on Tuesday, and those pullup threes that he was draining a couple months ago aren’t falling right now. He doesn’t need to pull himself back up to 40% from deep. Lou does, however, have to right the ship somewhat, as the Clippers will need him to hit some of those big outside shots if they are to win in their upcoming slate of games. The Clippers would have been lost at sea this season without Lou—he has been their anchor all year and remains such going down the stretch. Hopefully he turns his shot around soon.
  • Jawun vs CP/Harden Part Two: Jawun Evans was a key figure in the Clippers’ season-swinging win against the Rockets in January. He hounded Harden on defense, and forced him into two late game offensive fouls/turnovers, frustrating him immensely. Evans missed the third Rockets game due to injury, but he’s back for this one, and his aggressive defense should earn him some minutes on one or both of the Rockets’ superstars. The key for Evans will be being a pest without getting over-aggressive and committing poor fouls or letting his opponents drive by him. When the Rockets get into the penalty early, the free throws can really add up, and that’s the last thing the Clippers want (outside of a three-point barrage).
  • Three-Point Defense: The Clippers haven’t really been sharp guarding the three-point line lately. That kind of attitude/effort spells death against a Rockets team that takes more than half its shots from deep and has some of the best outside snipers in the NBA. Once the floodgates have been opened from out there, the Rockets can pour things on in a hurry. If the Clippers play with the same level of intensity against them as they have in the past couple weeks (which is unlikely, to be fair), they will get drowned in wave after wave of open three pointers. The Clippers’ defense in general is probably going to be the factor that decides the game (or at least the one that will allow the Clippers’ to make it competitive).
  • Doc’s Rotations: After an ineffective first half, Boban Marjanovic did not see the floor against the Bulls after halftime. The Rockets’ ability to generate switches and run endless drive and kicks is the exact scenario that Bobi is ill-equipped to handle, and I’d be surprised if Doc played him tonight. Instead, Montrezl Harrell will probably move back to center, and either Sam Dekker or Wes Johnson will get minutes at power forward. Hopefully one of those guys steps up and makes plays tonight. While Milos Teodosic has played well of late, and was good against the Rockets in their January meeting, Doc needs to have a short leash with him—if he’s getting consistently torched by the Rockets, he has to get pulled. Really, that’s the case across the board. The Clippers play again tomorrow against the Thunder, and can’t afford to play their starters too much. On the other hand, every game is important now, and that means playing your best players big minutes on a nightly basis. Doc will assuredly have some tough decisions to make with rotations tonight.

For the Rockets’ perspective, check out The Dream Shake.