Where: Staples Center, Los Angeles, California
When: 7:30 PM PT
How to watch/listen: NBA TV, Fox Sports Prime Ticket, AM 570
Projected Starting Lineups:
Rockets: Chris Paul – James Harden – Eric Gordon – PJ Tucker – Clint Capela
Clippers: Pat Beverley – Shai Gilgeous-Alexander – Landry Shamet – Danilo Gallinari – Ivica Zubac
Rockets: Kenneth Faried Questionable (Knee), Gerald Green Questionable (Groin)
Clippers: Luc Mbah a Moute Out (Knee), Pat Beverley Questionable (Hip)
The Big Picture:
The Clippers remain firmly in the battle for playoff positioning in the still-crowded Western Conference postseason picture, trailing just a half game behind the Utah Jazz for 5th, and holding a narrow two game margin over the Spurs and Thunder for 6th. However, no team is hotter than the Clippers right now, who are coming off an NBA-best 13-2 record in the month of March. The trade deadline acquisitions have rejuvenated the Clippers, turning their starting unit from a vast minus into a significant plus, and bolstering the bench as well. The new look Clips are just as offensively potent as the old Clips, but with a far better defense. With Danilo Gallinari playing the best basketball of his career and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander surging down the stretch, the Clippers have to be happy with where they’re at right now.
All those early-season worries about the Rockets seem like they occurred eons ago. With their win over the Kings last night, the Rockets hit the 50-game win mark, a standard for an excellent team, and have probably been the best team in the NBA over the past couple months. Their defense has tightened up with the return of Chris Paul and Clint Capela, and their offense has never been more dangerous. Pickups like Austin Rivers, Iman Shumpert, and Kenneth Faried have bolstered their depth: the Rockets are no longer James Harden and G-Leaguers. Speaking of Harden, the bearded one is putting together one of the most impressive NBA seasons of all time, scoring 30 points with great efficiency on a seemingly nightly basis. While there’s no doubt the Warriors are still the best team in the NBA when they actually try, the Rockets have established themselves as at least a contender for second best, alongside the Bucks and Raptors.
The backcourt matchup battle: The Clippers will have some tough choices to make when drawing up defensive assignments. Pat Beverley has often done well against larger players this season, and probably relishes taking on his old backcourt mate in Harden, but it’s fair to wonder if Harden’s new and deadly stepback jumper means Bev won’t be quite as effective as a larger defender. Landry Shamet is probably not up for the challenge (he’ll probably be guarding Eric Gordon), leaving Shai on Harden. It’s a tall order for any rookie to guard an MVP, and while Shai is up for the challenge, he’ll need to be very, very careful to not get in foul trouble. On the other end, the Clippers need to punish Harden’s lackadaisical (at best) defense by running him through lots of screens and pick and rolls. Hopefully this will lead to easy points, some fatigue for Harden, and possibly even foul trouble. If Harden is on Shai, the rook will need to be aggressive in looking for his shot. The same too goes for Beverley.
Zu must contain Clint: The Rockets wouldn’t be able to run their spread floor attack as effectively without a deadly roll man, and Clint Capela is one of the best rim-runners in the NBA right now. Capela has often caused the Clippers of the post – Lob City era problems, as they have struggled with long, athletic centers. Zubac has been a massive upgrade for the Clippers defensively, being better able to protect the rim and slide his feet on the perimeter than Marcin Gortat or Boban Marjanovic. But in Capela, Zu faces one of his toughest opponents to date, as well as a potential playoff matchup. As great as Montrezl Harrell is, he’s greatly undersized against Clint, and the Clippers need Zubac to prevent him from getting easy buckets on the roll, as well as keep him off the offensive glass.
Can Gallo keep it up: Gallinari has scored 20 or more points in 11 of the last 12 games he’s suited up for, and is just playing the best ball of his entire career. He’s scorching hot from deep, getting to the free throw line at a ridiculous rate, and is pulling down tons of boards as well. PJ Tucker will probably be his primary defender throughout the game, and while PJ is very tough, Gallo has several inches on him. Instead of taking him into the post, which plays into PJ’s strength, Gallo should focus mostly on shooting over the top. The Clippers can slow the Rockets but probably won’t be able to stop them. They will need to score a lot of points to win this one, and their best chance of keeping pace with their starting lineup is through another Gallo eruption.
Check out The Dream Shake for the Rockets’ perspective, and check back in later tonight for the game thread!