In the aftermath of the victory over San Antonio last Sunday, I believed that winning one of the next three games, during what has seemingly been dubbed “Hell Week”, would all but guarantee a Houston playoff berth for the first time since 2009. Unfortunately, a slow start against Indiana and a total inability to figure out the All-Star Memphis frontcourt means that if the Rockets wish to accomplish that, they will have to do it on the tail end of a back-to-back against their toughest opponent yet, one whom the Rockets have lost to twice and not beaten this season.
Fortunately, there are a few advantages. The Clippers also played last night, losing at San Antonio thanks to a Tim Duncan game-winner. The Rockets should also be as well-rested as one can be for this game because Kevin McHale, whether out of frustration or waving the white flag, benched the Houston starting lineup for the entire 4th quarter of yesterday’s game. Yet while the Clippers have clinched a playoff spot and will almost certainly win the Pacific Division for the first time in their franchise’s not-quite-sterling history, the team is still competing with Memphis and the Denver Nuggets in a battle for the 3rd through 5th seeds, and thus do have something to play for tonight.
At this point, everyone more or less knows what the Clippers are about. They are led by Chris Paul, the best point guard in the league despite an excellent season from Mr. Parker, and my pick for MVP earlier this season before LeBron did a LeBron. Paul has not exactly been shooting the ball well lately, averaging a sub .300 percentage from long range in March, but still knows the contours of the game as well as the ability to slow down and change pace whenever he needs to. They of course have Griffin, who I believe has had so many people overrating him thanks to his dunks that he’s actually underrated – Griffin’s PER, after all, is just a smidgen behind Harden’s and the man has a developing post game for one who turned 24 two weeks ago.
Houston will need to contain Paul and also prevent the most athletic power forward in the league from utterly destroying Motiejunas, shortly after a game where Donatas, while effective on offense, simply had no change at stopping Zach Randolph or Marc Gasol. The Rockets will need production from James Harden, who has struggled against elite perimeter defenders in Paul George and Tony Allen but will be going up against an easier backcourt of Willie Green and Jamaal Crawford. And the Rockets will also need their bench to match one of the best in the league, as Grant Hill continues to putter along, Lamar Odom has reached a level which while nowhere close to his Sixth Man of the Year performance in 2011, is far better than his disastrous stint in Dallas in 2012, and Jamaal Crawford is a legitimate candidate to win that very award.
In short, Houston is going to need a lot of things to go right for tonight’s game and for “Hell Week” to end on a high and successful note. But when one is facing a team that still has a legitimate shot for a championship, that is just how it is.
Update at 6 pm: Harden out due to a foot injury per Jason Friedman. James Anderson starting in place . Well, this will be interesting.