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.

Three Things to Know: Kawhi Leonard, Paul George’s sloppy first game shows promise

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Kawhi Leonard, Paul George’s first game together is both sloppy and shows moments of real promise. This was what the Clippers had been waiting for since July, what they had paid a steep price to make a reality and change the course of a franchise.

Paul George and Kawhi Leonard shared an NBA court for the first time and it was…

Sloppy.

A bit awkward, like a blind first date. Credit Boston’s active defense for some of that — it’s not a fluke Boston has the seventh-best defense in the league this season and forced 23 turnovers on the night — but through the muck there were moments of real promise. Like the first play of the game, when the Celtics trapped Leonard off an Ivica Zubac pick, Leonard fed Zubac, who quickly found Leonard for a three.

Moments later, when the Celtics trapped Leonard, and he found George for three.

For much of the game, things were not as smooth with those two on the court together — as should be expected. George missed the first 11 games of the season following double shoulder surgery this offseason. Once he returned, Leonard was out three games with a bruised knee. The pair had literally one practice together, and in the full-contact scrimmage to end that day they were on opposing sides.

This marriage going to take time. The Clippers didn’t even explore a Leonard/George pick-and-roll in this game, but you know that’s coming. As Doc Rivers put it postgame:

“We were kind of trying not to get in each other’s way at times, you could feel that…

“We need a lot of work, you can see that… part of that was we were trying to get the ball to guys instead of trying to score.”

With the game on the line in overtime against one of the NBA’s better and hotter teams in Boston, two things that make the Clippers so dangerous were evident.

One is the defense — George and Leonard each made big defensive plays late, including Leonard blocking Marcus Smart’s attempt at a game-winner.

All game long the Clippers length and defense gave Boston — which came into the game with the league’s fourth-best offense — trouble.

Second is Leonard and George have a good team around them — Patrick Beverley was the best Clipper on the floor Wednesday night and the team gave him the game ball afterward. He was intense on defense (as always), had 14 points and 16 boards, and with the Celtics making the choice to trap and double on offense guys were open, and it was Beverley who made Boston pay with the overtime dagger to seal a 107-104 win.

The Clippers, for all their star power, look a lot like Beverley. This is a scrappy, hard-working team with guys who play their roles and bring intensity. Even their stars are that way — George and Leonard are not anointed No. 1 picks where everyone saw their stardom coming, they are lunch pail guys who had talent but came out of smaller colleges and had to work hard to get where they are. Nothing was handed to them, they had to grind it out.

This is why pairing Leonard and George was always going to take a little time to make work. They were always going to have to figure it out.

But when they do…. you can already see why the rest of the league should be worried.

2) Another night, another ridiculous Luka Doncic triple-double. This feels like a nightly thing, and I’m fast running out of ways to praise Luka Doncic, his play, and to remind everyone that he’s just 20 years old and in his second NBA season.

Age doesn’t matter, he’s been so good he’s injected himself into the way-too-early MVP conversation. His latest feat Friday night was a 35-point, 11 assists, 10 rebound triple-double against the hapless Warriors — this time he did it in just 25 minutes on the court. He sat the entire fourth of a blowout Dallas win.

Doncic is now averaging a triple-double over his last 10 games: 31.9 points, 11.4 rebounds, and 10.5 assists in that stretch. Here’s the list of other NBA players to average a 30+ point triple-double for 10 games or more: Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, Oscar Robertson. That’s it.

Doncic is special, has willed the Mavericks to a 9-5 record, and has them looking like a playoff team in the West. Lifting up your team to the next level is what MVPs do, and so far in Dallas it’s what Doncic has done.

3) Do you believe in miracles… YES! Ben Simmons hits his first NBA three. That headline may overstate the excitement around Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons on Wednesday. But not by that much. Sixers fans — and coach Brett Brown — has had to wait three seasons, 193 games, and 18 attempts from three clank off the rim, if they hit anything at all. (Those numbers include his playoff stats.) It finally happened:

Ben Simmons has made his first NBA three.

We’ve all seen the videos of Simmons knocking down threes in an empty gym, but that’s the NBA equivalent of dunking on an 8-foot rim at the local elementary school. Not the same thing.

This was Simmons’ first attempt at a three all season — that’s the real concern. To create floor spacing Philly wants and needs, Simmons needs to be much more willing to uncork this shot — he’s got to take a bunch and make enough of them before teams respect him from deep.

This is at least a start. And it feels like a miracle.

There’s a mural in L.A. of Alex Caruso dunking over Harden, Leonard, Doncic

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It’s hard to overstate how popular Alex Caruso is in Los Angeles. Seriously. This isn’t just cult status popular, when he enters the game off the bench Staples Center explodes in cheers like LeBron James just fed Anthony Davis for an alley-oop.

Now Caruso has his own mural in Los Angeles.

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This is legit, it’s on the side of SportieLA, a clothing/apparel store on Melrose Ave. in the trendy heart of Los Angeles. Artist Gustavo Zermeño Jr. has done murals in the past for LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and other Los Angeles sports icons such as Vin Scully.

This one plays off a huge Caruso dunk from earlier this month when Dallas’ Maxi Kleber was the victim.

It’s good to be Alex Caruso in Los Angeles right now.

Kawhi Leonard just destroyed Boston’s Daniel Theis on dunk

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Daniel Theis‘ play as a rim protector is one of the reasons Boston has a top-10 defense this season. He has anchored the Celtics’ defense in the paint.

Kawhi Leonard is a two-time Finals MVP, and if he wants to go to the rim nobody is stopping him. Theis found out the hard way.

After the game, Leonard was asked about the dunk and he responded in about the most Kawhi way possible.

This was the first game Leonard and Paul George played together and they combined for 42 points, and they both made key play down the stretch of a 107-104 overtime win.

It took Luka Doncic 25 minutes to put together 35-point triple-double (VIDEO)

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DALLAS (AP) — Luka Doncic scored 33 of his 35 points in the first half and had yet another triple-double to help the Dallas Mavericks rout the short-handed Golden State Warriors 142-94 on Wednesday night.

Doncic fell a point short of matching Dirk Nowitzki’s team record set Nov. 3, 2009, against Utah. In just 17 minutes, Doncic was 10 for 11 from the floor, making 6 of 7 3-pointers, and hit 7 of 8 free throws.

The second-year star from Slovenia had 22 points, five assists and five rebounds in the first quarter alone. He played only 25 minutes total, but still managed 10 rebounds and 11 assists.

Doncic was coming off a 40-point triple-double Monday night against San Antonio, and has an NBA-best seven triple-doubles in 14 games this season.

The Mavericks never trailed and tied a franchise record with 22 3-pointers while sending Golden State to its worst loss since a 1973 playoff game.

The Warriors, who ended a seven-game losing streak by beating Memphis on Tuesday night, are an NBA-worst 3-13. Their five-year run of at the top of the NBA has collapsed under a weight of injuries, with Draymond Green out Wednesday because of right heel soreness.

With Green out, Golden State dressed only eight players, none of whom suited up for the team last season when it made the NBA Finals for the fifth consecutive year.

Eric Paschall led the Warriors with 22 points.

Tim Hardaway Jr. added 20 for Dallas. Kristaps Porzingis had 14 points and 10 rebounds for his fourth-straight double-double.