James Harden started off the game hot, and it looked like it might be a long night for the Clippers. But they quickly bounced back to tie the game, and tightened up on defense. They were able to limit the Rockets to 28 points in the 1st quarter, giving every impression of hanging around for the long haul. The second quarter went even better, as the Clippers’ tight defense along with some missed shots and turnovers by the Rockets held Houston a mere 18 points in the period. The Clippers were never able to gain a significant advantage due to their own mistake, mainly bad turnovers and forcing bad shots.
The Clippers came out of halftime scorching hot on both ends, and a flurry by Austin Rivers and Tobias Harris had them up 12 with 7 minutes left in the third. Then the Rockets did what they’ve done all year—score points in a hurry. They drained threes, ran the ball up the court in transition, and had the game tied less than three minutes later. From then on, the game became a seesaw battle. The Clippers kept losing Eric Gordon behind the three point line, and endless Houston drive and kicks created an abundance of corner threes. But the Clippers’ own offense was working well, especially generating shots around the basket. However, a poor stretch by the Clippers’ bench to start the 4th quarter put the Rockets up by 8, and they never looked back. While the Clippers cut the lead to two on a couple occasions, it never really seemed like they had a push in them to take the lead and hold onto it. Offensive rebounds by Clint Capela and PJ Tucker didn’t help matters. James Harden hit a stepback jumper with 29 seconds left to put the Rockets up by 4, a shot that sums up his MVP campaign in one defiant statement. The Clippers’ following offensive possession was a mess, working too slowly and ineffectively, and the game ended on a missed Lou Williams floater.
- Tobias Plays Well: Tobias was easily the Clippers’ best player tonight, the only one who made positive plays from start to finish. He dominated the first half, scoring 21 of the Clippers’ 51 points, and doing so in a variety of ways. He hit open threes off the catch, cooked defenders attacking the basket, and created space for buttery smooth midrange shots. He cooled off in the second half after the Rockets made some adjustments on him, yet still pulled down rebounds and moved the ball well. He’s just been phenomenal for the Clippers, and tonight was no exception.
- Good Defensive Effort For Most Part: The Rockets shot just 39% from the field and 29% from three tonight. They won via free throws (19 makes to 4 for the Clippers) and offensive rebounds (a staggering 16 of them), not by decimating the Clippers’ defense. The Clips rotated all night, contested the Rockets’ shots well, and generally played hard on that end. Their only undoing was on the glass, and in finding Eric Gordon, who worked his way free for easy three point shots far too many times. The tone was set by Sindarius Thornwell and Jawun Evans, who picked up James Harden and Chris Paul full-court the entire night, and forced the superstar guards into several turnovers. The pressure became less effective in the 2nd half, as Harden in particular started just zooming by Thornwell and breaking down the defense to find open shooters. It was an interesting tactic that had some usefulness, but the Clippers probably shouldn’t have stuck with it for as long as they did.
- Sindarius’ Limitations Revealed: Sindarius on the whole played about as well as could be expected. Harden burned him several times, true. But the Beard burns everyone—he’s been runner-up MVP twice, and is going to win this season barring something very unexpected. Sin always plays with energy and has gotten better at not forcing things and turning the ball over. Still, his lack of offensive game hurt the Clippers tonight. The Rockets constantly sagged off him, either letting him shoot or attack into a mostly set defense, knowing he couldn’t hurt them from midrange or with any advanced playmaking. He was 3-9 from the field and 0-2 from three, and most of those misses were tough shots around the basket or uncontested jumpshots. He’s most definitely an NBA player; if he wants to make the step to reliable rotation player he needs to work on his shot and ball-handling.
Sam Dekker and Wes Johnson Struggle: For as much as Sindarius had his issues tonight, he was far, far better than Wes Johnson and Sam Dekker. Doc briefly played both of them together at the end of the 1st quarter, and the results were predictably bad. Even alone the two combo forwards struggled. They were 0-6 from the field (though Dekker did hit two free throws), and their complete lack of shooting clogged the Clippers’ spacing. They weren’t much better on defense, being too slow to guard against Houston’s guards when switched onto them on the perimeter. There are occasions when Wes and Sam can play, mostly against bad teams or opponents with weak benches, but they’re just not good enough on either end to warrant minutes against playoff teams, much less contenders. Doc doesn’t want to overplay his stars, and I get that, but the Clippers are fighting for their lives, and guys like Tobias Harris just can’t be off the court for all that long. If anything, Montrezl Harrel (only 13 minutes) probably deserved more minutes tonight.
Tough loss for the Clippers. They probably could have pulled out a win here, as the Rockets were not on their best tonight. Sadly, they fell just a little short. They will try their luck tomorrow against the Thunder in Oklahoma City, who are well rested. Hopefully the Clippers’ heavy minutes against the Rockets won’t be too big a factor, but a win seems unlikely.