Rockets’ shoddy defense has Clippers in command of series

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LOS ANGELES — In a pivotal Game 3 Friday night, 54.2 percent of the Clippers shots were open ones. Uncontested. Clean looks.

Due to a combination of lineups and effort, too often the Rockets couldn’t or wouldn’t get a defender in the way of the shooter. (For comparison, less than 40 percent of the Rockets’ shots were uncontested.)

It’s been a problem all series — and it’s going to end this series quickly if the Rockets don’t fix it.

Through three games against the Clippers, the Houston Rockets have allowed 110.6 points per 100 possessions. That’s terrible. It’s 10.1 worse than Houston gave up in the regular season, when the team was sixth in the league defensively. That 110.6 is one point worse than the league-worst Minnesota Timberwolves gave up on the season.

It’s not just this series; the Rockets didn’t defend the Mavericks well either in the first round. Throughout the playoffs, they have allowed 107.8 points per 100 possessions. It’s just in the first round they could outscore Dallas.

The Clipper offense is carving up Rockets — particularly in transition. But honestly just about all the time they can get the shots they want — Jason Terry cannot hang with J.J. Redick, and pairing Terry and James Harden has been a defensive disaster. Harden is showing the habits of his old, poor defense self (after a season where he put out a good effort on that end of the court). Terrence Jones has missed assignments. There are more problems — too many for Dwight Howard to clean up (he’s played well). This is more than missing Patrick Beverley (the Rockets’ defense was statistically better with him on the bench during the regular season). The Rockets’ defense is the main reason the Clippers are ahead two games to one and appear in total control of this second round series.

“We’ve had one good defensive half so far,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said after Friday night’s Game 3 loss. “That was the second half of the second game. But other than that we haven’t gotten anything.”

And the Clippers have gotten pretty much everything they wanted.

That successful half the Rockets had came with Trevor Ariza fronting Blake Griffin in the post with help (usually Dwight Howard) behind to kill the lob. It was a good strategy, but the Clippers didn’t show any counters Wednesday night, often keeping the ball on one side of the court.

That changed in Game 3 Friday. Chris Paul is not one to let the ball stick on one side. The Rockets rarely went to the small lineup out of that fear. Then when Clippers players got looks they knocked them down — Austin Rivers and J.J. Redick were a combined 8-of-12 from three.

Houston counts on stops to get themselves out in transition and to get some easy buckets before the defense sets. That did not happen much at all Friday night — the Rockets went against set defenses all night long and did okay, but not great, scoring against them.

On the other side, Houston’s poor offensive choices at times have fueled easy Clippers buckets going the other way because the Rockets have been so bad in transition defense. That was especially true in the ugliest defensive stretch of the series for Houston, the Clippers’ 23-0 run later in the third quarter when Los Angeles blew the game open.

“We didn’t play much defense at that point,” McHale said. “They made a few shots on us, we had a couple turnovers during that stretch, and you know they were running, we weren’t getting back. We played very poorly during that stretch, needless to say….

“Our turnovers, they ran off it, and you know, we did not. We did not do a good job of handling the pressure., all the things that came out with that little bit of a run. We just let go of the rope, and they piled on us.”

That has to be the most concerning thing Kevin McHale — when punched in the mouth, the Rockets folded. They let go of the rope. They showed no heart. Use whatever cliche you want for the Rockets’ becoming demoralized and rolling over once the Clippers get going. That’s not how McHale played in his Celtics days, but his Rockets’ have different leadership in the locker room than those legendary teams.

If the Clippers jump out to an early lead in Game 4, what happens to Houston?

But even the early lead may not matter. If the Rockets don’t figure out how to get consistent stops — and that will not be easy against the best regular season offense in the NBA — this series will be over sooner rather than later.