LOS ANGELES — This game was ugly.
Not only because of the parade to the free throw line in the first half — the Clippers shot 44 free throws in the first 24 minutes, DeAndre Jordan had 28 of them — but also because by the fourth quarter the Clippers were just clowning the Rockets. Well, maybe Clippers fans didn’t find that hard to watch.
Houston has struggled all series to get stops against Los Angeles. On Sunday night only one defensive strategy worked for the Rockets — foul Jordan intentionally. They did that 14 times in the first half, making the game about as entertaining as a video of a clock ticking.
“Well, we got Dwight (Howard) in foul trouble, got in foul trouble right away…” Rockets’ coach Kevin McHale said, referring to Howard picking up two fouls in the first 3:40 of the game. “We were just trying to see if we could muck up the game a little bit. We didn’t. We came back in, and we kind of had to play small, so we thought maybe we could just get them out of a rhythm a little bit.”
It seemed to throw the Rockets off their rhythm more. But at least that defensive strategy sort of worked — those 14 possessions the Rockets outscored the Clippers 11-10 (according to Kevin Pelton of ESPN).
The problem is when the Rockets stopped doing that in the second quarter the Clippers instantly went on a 9-0 run because they continued to get stops, get out and run, and then tear up Rockets poor transition defense. Then the Clippers came out in the second half and opened it on a 21-4 run, to push their lead north of 20 points — Jordan pitched in and took his frustrations out on the rim with dunks. The Clippers grabbed 8 offensive rebounds (on 12 missed shots), scored 43 points, and had 103 points total after three quarters.
The game was all but over. So is the series. The Clippers won Game 4 128-95, and now lead the series 3-1.
It is clear the Clippers are the superior team. The Rockets do not have the defense to hang — and Patrick Beverley was not going to solve this problem, nor was Donatas Motiejūnas or K.J. McDaniels (all out injured). On Sunday night 55.7 percent of the Clippers shots were uncontested, according to the NBA’s player tracking data. The Clippers had the best offense in the NBA in the regular season and, even with a hobbled Chris Paul, the Rockets have no answers to slow it. Outside of fouling. Jordan hit 14 free throws (on 34 attempts) on his way to 26 points.
“I think both teams lost their rhythm for a while, so that’s the problem with it,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said of the second quarter fouling spree. “Especially if you’re then or us, teams that run, teams that like motion. It turns it into a half-court game, and, you know it allows us to set our defense.”
“Yeah, we’re not really moving,” the Rockets’ James Harden said (he had 21 points and got to the free throw line 10 times). “We’re not really moving on the offensive end. We’re pretty much stagnant, so it makes it easier for them to kind of load up and play their normal defense.”
That defense was good enough in the decisive third quarter to hold the Rockets to 33.3 percent shooting — and then the Clippers ran off the misses. They ran to the run and they ran to the arc. The Clippers put up 43 points in the third quarter with J.J. Redick leading the way with 15 points and hitting 4-of-4 from three.
The fourth quarter was simply a party for Clippers fans, who are about to see their team reach the Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history. The only thing those fans enjoyed more than the alley-oop dunks in the second half was seeing Dwight Howard get ejected for throwing the ball at the referee’s feet after picking up his sixth foul.
While the Rockets have struggled to slow the Clippers, Los Angeles has found ways to reign in Houston. Put simply, James Harden is the only real shot creator off the dribble and the Clippers have done a good job of not letting him get to the line — on every drive they put their arms straight up and seem to give a little ground. The goal is not to get the call, although Harden thinks the refs are just missing the calls.
“I’ve got a couple scratches on my arms to show you,” Harden said when asked about the Clippers’ defense.
The Rockets players said all the right things about needing to be more focused at home, to bring a better effort in the third quarter, and a host of other cliches.
But unless they find some defense back in Houston, by Wednesday they could be making tee times.