The recent history between the Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Clippers is storied and undeniable, linked by dashed playoff hopes, a blockbuster trade and the squashing of supposed beef. Let us recap the series of events:
May 2015: the Rockets, behind a stellar 19-point performance from Josh Smith and an improbable run in Game 6 of the Western Conference Semifinals, capped off a comeback from being down 3 games to 1 to vanquish the Clippers en route to the Western Conference Finals. The collapse of the Clippers would be the beginning of the end of the “Lob City” era of the organization, setting up a blockbuster trade two years later.
June 2017: Rockets GM Daryl Morey would shock the NBA world in trading for future Hall of Famer Chris Paul, sending to the Clippers Rockets fan favorite Patrick Beverley along with Lou Williams, Sam Dekker, Montrezl Harrell, Darrun Hilliard, DeAndre Liggins, Kyle Wiltjer, a protected first-round pick and cash considerations. The trade, which Williams recently claimed the Rockets paid a healthy price for (to which Daryl would say, four quarters does not equal a dollar in the NBA), nonetheless set the Rockets on a new, improved trajectory towards competing for a championship. Morey has never been shy about valuing all-star NBA players with higher ceilings over solid role players and was able to, within one season, incredibly find another All-Star pairing for James Harden following a failed one with Dwight Howard. Following the trade, the Clippers would eventually go on to shed the remaining cornerstones of the Lob City era, Blake Griffin (now on the Detroit Pistons) and DeAndre Jordan (now on the New York Knicks by way of the Dallas Mavericks).
January 2018: Following a chippy match between the two teams in which Houston lost 102-113, Paul, with his mental blueprint of The Staples Center’s tunnel system, spearheaded an assault on the Clippers locker room. Using Clint Capela as a foil to distract the Clippers at the front door of their locker room, Paul, Harden and Trevor Ariza snuck through an alternate route to gain access. There, Paul and Co. challenged future Rocket Austin Rivers and Blake Griffin to “come out and play”. The story’s truth most likely was bent conveniently for the wild imaginations of NBA fans, but, nonetheless, it became one of the most talked about events of the year and on #NBATwitter.
December 2018: The Rockets, having recently lost Paul to a hamstring injury, did what was necessary and grabbed the only point guard on the market, Austin Rivers, in a cruel twist of irony. Certain Rockets fans showed great concern over the move, wondering if Rivers would bring down the organization from the inside. Rivers immediately addressed the concerns of such fans, claiming Paul and him, in fact, had no bad blood between them and advantageously knew where all the tunnels were. Rivers would go on to be one of the critical signings of this season and help propel the Rockets on an incredible win streak to get back into playoff contention.
Fast forward to last night’s game. Touted as a potential playoff matchup, several Rockets fans expressed concerns about the tenacity the Clippers have shown this season and how they have nothing to lose. That is certainly true; the team, without any true All Star, was picked at the beginning of the season by most NBA pundits to miss out on the playoffs (those same pundits also claimed that the other LA team would own a top-4 seed, but I digress). Instead, Doc Rivers has solidified a Coach-of-the-Year candidacy, with his team currently owning the 6th seed in the Western Conference and bound for the playoffs. The tandem of former Rockets Williams and Harrel has become one of the best pick-and-roll duos in the NBA – looks like they learned a few things from Harden and Capela! The game would seem to be a tightly contested one, particularly with the Rockets on the second night of a road back-to-back. What transpired was the complete opposite.
Unfortunately, Patrick Beverley was a late scratch, robbing Rockets fans the opportunity to see the fan favorite play, but, by and large, the Rockets controlled the game from the tip. In the first quarter, the team, led by Harden, got off to fast offensive start. The Clippers had no answers for the verticality of Clint Capela, who connected on two alley-oops from Harden. Paul, relishing the opportunity to show out against his former team, connected on three 3-pointers. PJ Tucker and Paul showed off their notorious defensive prowess, logging 3 steals and helping spearhead an excellent defensive showing for the team. Still, despite the clamps they would put on the Clippers, the Rockets would be called for six fouls in the quarter. The Clippers play at one of the fastest paces in the league (103.9) while the Rockets are markedly slower (100.3), primarily due to the isolation-heavy play of Harden and Paul and an older roster. With a faster pace of play, the Clippers excelled in transition, which often resulted in foul calls if a drive to the basket couldn’t be converted. Despite this disparity, the Rockets entered the second quarter up 13.
In the second quarter, the Rockets kept things relatively at parity despite having some significant shooting droughts, indicating just how far the team’s defense has come since the All-Star Break. The Rockets would not score a field goal from the 3:28 mark until the end of the half but were able to stay in the game largely due to the team’s ability to draw fouls and maintain its strong effort on the defensive end. Teams will always go on shooting droughts, but a good defense buys them time before they are able to once again set fire to the nylon. The Rockets would end the second quarter up 15 with the score Rockets 68, Clippers 53, despite this drought, setting the boys in red up for the onslaught that would be the second half. Paul, never shy about voicing his opinion on officiating, created yet another gifable moment in his hilarious miming of official Ken Mauer:
The third quarter showed just how dangerous the Rockets can be when they are rolling. Fans saw this type of play often last year, most famously highlighted by the 50-point quarter the team unleashed on the Minnesota Timberwolves in Game 4 of the 1st round playoffs. The Rockets opened up the quarter by once again exploiting the size advantage they had over the Clippers, setting up Capela for yet another alley-oop. From there, the team would steamroll the Clippers. Paul would connect on six field goals, logging 14 points for the quarter. Danuel House showed just how diligently he had been taking notes from the reigning MVP, hitting a three-pointer while drawing a foul:
He also seems to be taking notes from Clint Capela, as he connected on some well-executed alley-oop assists from the Harden. This brings up an important distinction between this year’s Rockets team vs. last years that I pointed out during the broadcast:
The Rockets, while not the 65-win juggernaut they were last year, clearly now have an identity that is arguably more versatile. They have new role players that can not only shoot the three-pointer passably but can also create off the dribble from the perimeter, such as House, Rivers and Kenneth Faried (though his 3-pointer still needs some work). Further, there are arguably three players now (Capela, Faried and House) that increase the teams vertical spacing vs. just one. This creates an offensive wrinkle teams may have a harder time counteracting. House has been the most consistent so far, but his youth has shown at times when he decides to dish rather than complete drives to the bucket. Rivers, while having a more erratic three-point shot, has been able to create in isolation and drive to the bucket. It remains to be seen if this dynamism holds in the playoffs when teams’ defenses get tighter, but it is certainly encouraging.
The Rockets would go on to win the 3rd quarter by 14 points and balloon their lead to 29, capped by an amazing cross-court buzzer beater from Paul:
The Rockets effectively sealed the win at this point, and the team would go on to beat the Clippers by 32 points with a score of 135 to Los Angeles’ 103. Harden would end with a “quiet” (by the MVP’s standards) 31/7/7, while Paul logged 29/7/4 and Capela 24/15. House would end up connecting on all three of his three-pointers, while Eric Gordon logged a team-best +31 and hit 5 of his 10 shots from beyond the arc.
More importantly, the Rockets perhaps illustrated their best brand of basketball all season, vanquishing two good teams in two nights with blowout wins, all while reducing the minutes of key starters ahead of the playoffs. The team’s defense, once a liability, is now becoming an asset, as the Rockets own the second-best defensive rating (105.4) and second-best net rating (9.6) since the All-Star break. They are firing on all cylinders finally, which seems downright miraculous given the disastrous 11-14 start and plague of injuries this season. The team is only 1.5 games behind Denver for the second seed, which, crazy as it now seems, is very much in play. The Rockets just need to continue taking care of business and let the chips fall where they may. Most importantly, The Rockets are entering the playoffs as the best version of themselves.