The Clippers started off playing perhaps their best first quarter of basketball in a while. Ivica Zubac, in particular, shone on both ends, protecting the rim and sliding along the perimeter defensively while excelling in passing out of the short roll on offense. The Clippers defense, in general, was crisp, with rotations coming early and often to prevent the Rockets from getting open threes off of the extra attention paid to James Harden. The arrival of the Clippers bench meant a slight slacking in defense, but Montrezl Harrell’s bullying of Tyson Chandler on offense kept the Clips ahead at the end of one.
The second quarter looked like it could be one where the Clippers jetted away from their opponents. Doc went with a fascinating no-guard lineup, running out Kawhi, Paul George, Moe Harkless, JaMychal Green, and Montrezl Harrell. This unit, while not brilliant offensively, kept mistakes down and smothered the Rockets on defense. When this unit was changed however, by the arrival of Lou Williams, things went south. Lou did not have a good first half, with several awful turnovers and some trademark poor defense. The Rockets cut a 14 point Clippers lead down to one in no time flat, and only some vintage Kawhi shot-making gave the Clippers an edge going into halftime.
The third quarter started off as badly as the second began well. The Rockets swiftly entered the bonus, with Harden repeatedly getting to the free throw line or draining threes. Meanwhile, the Clippers appeared completely lost offensively, turning the ball over on sloppy passes and missing easy shots. The Rockets lead hit double digits, and the game seemed to be slipping away. Then, on a dime, the Clippers fought back, finally earning a couple stops and getting a couple free throws of their own to stem the bleeding. From then, it was all Lou Williams. Lou, who was scoreless in the first half, poured in 14 points in the latter part of the third to keep the Clips close.
The fourth quarter was thrilling from start to finish. Kawhi Leonard began the period on the court, and played almost the entire quarter to push the Clips to victory. A still hot Lou Williams ran several pick and rolls with Kawhi, each resulting in a bucket – either Lou cruised to the basket, or Kawhi got the mismatch on the smaller Austin Rivers. Meanwhile, the Clippers, turning the Rockets’ tactics on them, got Houston in the penalty within a couple minutes, and were able to score numerous times at the line. However, every time the Clippers scored, the Rockets seemed like they had an answer. Austin Rivers hit a couple threes, Russell Westbrook made some nice layups, and James Harden dazzled, fouling out Pat Beverley on a ridiculous four-point play.
The Rockets led by five points with just a minute to go, but a gorgeous play out of a timeout got Paul George an open corner three. Splash. JaMychal Green, placed in the game when Pat fouled out, got a crucial block on Clint Capela, and the Clippers advanced the ball up the court. Paul George had a decent look, but saw Lou open in the corner and made the simple swing pass. Bingo. The Clippers led by one with under 30 seconds to go. Not to be outdone, Harden quickly drew a foul on Kawhi and made two free throws, giving the Rockets the lead once more. Undeterred, Kawhi came right back down and scored a tough midrange bucket over PJ Tucker, swinging things back to the Clips. Russell Westbrook launched an awful three, George secured the rebound and made both free throws, and the game ended with Kawhi knocking the ball away from Harden. The Clips took it 122-119 in perhaps their best victory of the season thus far.
Tale of Two Halves for Lou: Lou Williams had one of his occasional awful halves of basketball in the first part of this game. He was taking awful shots, turning the ball over sloppily, and giving up points on the other end. However, he more than made up for it in the second half, when he poured in 26 points and four assists on 9-12 from the field, and didn’t turn it over once. He got wherever he wanted to, made smart plays, and hit clutch shot after clutch shot. The Clippers have Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, and their offense was still running through Sweet Lou down the stretch of the 4th. He’s a monster, plain and simple, and is the early favorite to claim his fourth Sixth Man of the Year Award. Lou’s defense is bad, and he can make poor decisions at times, but his shot making, playmaking, and icy clutch demeanor is irreplaceable for the Clippers. If you’re one of the people who have suggested the Clippers don’t need Lou any more…. shame on you.
JaMychal Green, More Than a Shooter: There have been calls for the Clippers and Doc to play JaMychal Green a bit less as his shot has swooned. Tonight’s game was a great argument against that movement, as Green mustered a team high +17, with plenty of eye test evidence to back that number up. His versatile defense – equally capable of bodying big men in the paint or guarding guards on the perimeter – combined with his rebounding and even the threat of his shooting and the spacing that provides is extremely important. Doc went with him down the stretch of this one after Pat fouled out, and it turned out to be a great decision, as he made that crucial defensive play on Capela and came up with some big rebounds. It would be nice if that shot started falling again, but Green does plenty else on the court to warrant his playing time.
Fight and Toughness Remains: There were some concerns going into his season that even with a number of tough and gritty players on the roster, the Clippers wouldn’t have the same fight as last year due to their star power and their lack of underdog status. While there have been some low-energy stretches here and there, the Clippers as a whole have displayed the same mental fortitude and determination that made them such a joy last season. There were several points tonight where other teams might have given up, but these Clippers did not, and willed themselves back in every time. The team has superstars, and is one of the favorites to win the NBA title, but they also play hard almost every night and have a never-say-die mentality. These Clippers aren’t always pretty, but there’s no doubting their heart or spirit.
Well, the Clippers have now won four in a row and are 11-5. Next up: another revenge game, this time against the young New Orleans Pelicans.