Clippers Rockets

Rockets’ James Harden, role players step up while Clippers roll over — Houston wins Game 7

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Sunday, it was just more of the formula that had won Houston 56 games this season: James Harden playing at an MVP level, good defensive effort, and role players stepping up when called.

For the Clippers, it was the culmination of the biggest collapse in franchise history. Which in the case of the Clippers is saying something.

From the opening tip the Clippers turned the ball over, missed their threes, and got little from their role players — they were just sloppy. From the opening tip the Rockets played with the energy of desperation, but also efficiency — they knocked down their open looks, and they defended the paint well.

“For the most part we stayed in attack mode,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said. “I thought James (Harden) was fantastic, 31 points, big free throws down the stretch. He got us going with some passes early.”

The result was a 113-100 Houston win in a Game 7 they led wire to wire.

Houston advances and will fly to the West Coast to face Golden State in the first game of the Western Conference Finals starting Tuesday night.

“I think finishing that first series, we kind of took this series slow in the beginning. It kind of bit us in the butt,” Harden said of the Rockets falling down 3-1 in the series before becoming only the ninth team in NBA history to come back from that and advance in seven. “But we fought back, we fought three really hard games and we came away with the win.”

“We got destroyed,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “The 50-50 game (toss up plays), turnovers to start the game… I love my team, and I love the fact they wanted to win so bad that I thought, in my opinion, we almost couldn’t win… they all wanted to win so bad they tried to do it all on their own.”

James Harden had 31 points on 20 shots to lead the Rockets. But he had help: Trevor Ariza was 6-of-12 from three and had 22 points, Dwight Howard had 16 points and 15 rebounds, even Pablo Prigioni was making key steals and plays off the bench.

Harden was doing it from the outset — he came out in playmaker mode. It helped that the Clippers were sloppy and had seven turnovers in the first quarter — one just trying to inbound the ball after a Rockets’ make — plus hit just 1-of-7 from three in the first frame. Call that a Clippers’ hangover from Game 6, call it Game 7 nerves, call it the few expletives Doc Rivers did during a timeout, the fact is it left the Clippers stepped into a hole they could not climb out of the rest of the game.

Mostly because the Rockets’ wouldn’t let them out.

Harden was rolling downhill — as Kevin McHale likes to describe it — and had 12 first-half points on nine shots. Also, the Rockets hit 6-of-12 from three to start the game, knocking down the open looks Harden was generating.

While the Clippers weren’t getting stops, it was the offensive end that was there bigger problem. The game had a fast pace, 53 possessions in the first half, and the Clippers only gave up 1.06 points per possession, not a bad number. Problem is they scored only 0.87 per possession — they were 4-of-14 from three in the first half, 7-of-25 for the game. Remove Blake Griffin and Chris Paul from the equation and the Clippers were 9-of-27 from the field in the first half and 19-of-49 for the game (38.8 percent).

The Rockets led 56-46 at the half, and the Clippers were lucky it was that close.

Los Angeles opened the second half 4-of-4 shooting, quickly cutting the lead to three. But as they had all game to that point, the Rockets had an answer — a driving dunk by Harden and a Josh Smith three and it was up to eight again. The Rockets went on a 25-11 after the game got within three. Rockets make run at the end of third quarter behind Pablo Prigioni, who had a couple steals from Griffin to make quick points, plus he hit a three and got to the line. It was 85-68 with one quarter left and the Rockets were in total control of the game.

Part of this was the Clippers lack of depth and fatigue — they looked physically tired and mentally tired as the game wore on. They expended a lot of energy on those comebacks, and that finally caught up to them when the Rockets made their big push at the end of the third. The Clippers gave it their all in desperation late in the fourth, but for three games now had looked flat when it mattered most.

Chris Paul had 26 points and 10 assists, Blake Griffin had 27 points.

Rockets GM Daryl Morey deserves credit here for the win, too. His moves to bring in depth like Trevor Ariza and Prigioni paid off on the big stage. Doc Rivers the GM’s biggest signing last summer, Spencer Hawes — Rivers wanted him more than Paul Pierce — barely even play in Game 7.

There are going to be a lot of questions about the Clippers as they head into the summer.

The Rockets’ summer hasn’t started yet — they live to play another day.

 

PBT Second Round Playoff Preview: Los Angeles Clippers vs. Houston Rockets

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SEASON RECORDS

Clippers: 56-26 (third place in Western Conference)
Rockets: 56-26 (second place in Western Conference)
Season series tied 2-2 (Dwight Howard played in none of those games, Blake Griffin only two, so don’t read too much into it)

KEY INJURIES

Clippers: Chris Paul strained his hamstring in Game 7 against San Antonio and, while the MRI was negative, it not clear if will be able to go in Game 1. However, even if he does, he is not 100 percent.

Rockets: Patrick Beverley had wrist surgery and is out for the postseason. Donatas Motiejunas is out for the playoffs (spinal surgery). K.J. McDaniels has a fractured elbow and will be out for this series.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS (regular season)

Clippers: 109.8 points scored per 100 possessions (1st in NBA); 103 points allowed per 100 possessions (15th in NBA).
Rockets: 104.2 points scored per 100 possessions (12th in NBA); 100.5 points allowed per 100 possessions (6th in NBA).

THREE KEYS TO THE SERIES

1) How healthy is Chris Paul’s hamstring? The answer to this question can swing the series. CP3 is the best point guard in the game, a guy who can beat you scoring or passing, is a very good defender, but more than all that he is the smartest point guard going. Nobody can orchestrate the flow of the game like he can. Maybe the bigger issue for the Clippers, he’s backed up by Austin Rivers — a guy who should be on the bubble of even being in the league. If CP3 can’t go expect a lot more Rivers and Jamal Crawford (who can score but is a defensive liability). Which is to say, if he can’t go or is extremely limited the Clippers are not near the same team. Paul was nothing short of brilliant against the Spurs — 22.7 points and 7.9 assists a game, not to mention the series-clinching shot over Tim Duncan — and if there is a significant drop off against the Rockets then Houston becomes a clear favorite. The Clippers had the best offense in the land in the regular season, but it’s not the same if CP3 can’t go. Paul gutted it out against the Spurs and expect him to give it a go against Houston, and even 70 percent of Paul is far better than any alternative for Los Angeles.

2) Can the Clippers continue to defend well and keep James Harden in relative check? Despite Doc Rivers pitching DeAndre Jordan for Defensive Player of the Year, the Clippers were an average defensive team this season. Los Angeles was inconsistent on that end of the floor. However, against the Spurs Los Angeles’ aggressive, pressure defense was fantastic, with much crisper rotations, much better physicality, and Jordan owned the paint making it far more difficult for the Spurs to score inside. Houston’s offense looked much better in the first round thanks to the return of an active Dwight Howard — someone who will keep Jordan busy and limit his ability to help — but it is also far more conventional than what the Spurs run. The Clippers will welcome the respite. In the regular season series the Clippers held Harden to 38.5 percent shooting thanks to pesky defense mostly from J.J. Redick. He and Matt Barnes will both get time on the beard (and defending Harden is a team job anyway). The Clippers held Harden in check better than most teams. If Los Angeles can do that again, Houston will need another strong performance from Trevor Ariza, Terrence Jones and the rest of the supporting cast like they got against Dallas. But this is not the pathetic Dallas defense that the Rockets will have to do it against now.

3) Can Josh Smith have another big series? Dallas simply had no answer for Josh Smith, who averaged 17.4 points and 3.8 assists per game in that series, both second best on Houston. More than that, he was efficient shooting 51.5 percent overall and 39.1 percent from three. If he can provide depth it is something the Clippers will struggle to match — Los Angeles does not have a bench Doc Rivers can trust. (He should really talk to his GM about that.) The Clippers would have to use a lot of Blake Griffin on Smith and that could start to wear down Griffin, who struggled at times with energy in the fourth quarter against San Antonio (although games six and seven he played well). Smith can be the real X-factor in this series if he has another strong performance.

PREDICTION

So much of this swings on Chris Paul’s hamstring — if he cannot play or is truly limited Houston is the favorite. No doubt Houston looked good last series, but that was against a Dallas team playing no defense and with an offense that leaned on Rajon Rondo for a few games. The Clippers just took out the Spurs and are simply playing at a much higher level than what Houston has seen. The Clippers may have a hangover from the Spurs series, but that is only going to last one game (at most) then the team with championship aspirations with turn its focus to the task at hand. And if CP3 is anywhere near healthy, that will be too much for even this good Rockets’ team. The Clippers win in six.