LOS ANGELES—DeAndre Jordan may not know it, and he’d certainly never admit it, but Sunday night marked one of the best games in his career. He must have been mortified in the moment, making that long walk to the free-throw line, as fans booed and teammates moaned. But if the NBA changes its rules on intentional fouling, this game will be remembered as the impetus, the moment when the outcry became impossible to ignore.
The Rockets started fouling Jordan 3:40 into Game 4 and they didn’t stop until their season was on life support. They fouled him with Kostas Papanikolaou, who was whistled four times in a minute, and Clint Capela, who was whistled four times in two. Jordan, whose previous career high for free throws was 28, took that many in the first half alone. Jordan shot 34 for the game and he might have broken the record for free-throw attempts had the Clippers actually needed their starters down the stretch.
Fouling Jordan is a popular strategy, given that he is a 41.7% career free-throw shooter, but the Rockets took the tactic to an extreme. They employed one bench-warmer after another to chase Jordan around the court, like giants playing tag, before the Clippers could initiate any kind of offense. The first quarter was interminable. The second was unwatchable. Blake Griffin grew so bored he started dunking during stoppages. Doc Rivers tried to evaluate Chris Paul and couldn’t. “There was no basketball going on,” Rivers said. TNT would have been better off broadcasting from the pop-a-shot at a local Dave & Buster’s.
[daily_cut.NBA]The Rockets will take criticism for their star turn in the hack-a-thon, but this is a team that gave up 124 points in Game 3 and 128 in Game 4. They can’t stop the Clippers any other way. Once Dwight Howard picked up two early fouls, coach Kevin McHale said: “Well, let’s just foul them for a while and see if we can slow the pace down.” Jordan went 10 for 28 from the line in the first half and the Clippers still scored 60 points. The Rockets kept fouling in the third quarter, but with less consistency and conviction, and the damage grew worse. The lead swelled to 30, as Jordan threw down a series of vengeful dunks, and the Rockets looked around in search of their much ballyhooed regular-season defense.
It’s gone. The Clippers rolled again, 128–95, behind 26 points and 17 rebounds from Jordan. Howard, his counterpart, was ejected with seven and six. The Clippers lead the series, 3-1, and it doesn’t even seem that close. If their dominance continues Tuesday, they will reach the Western Conference finals for the first time and allow Paul’s hamstring to heal, while the Warriors and Grizzlies bloody each other on the other side of the bracket. Surveying the playoff landscape, no team is better positioned than the Clippers, and surveying the summer landscape, no player is better positioned than their center.
Jordan will be an unrestricted free agent on July 1, and the second the NBA amends the fouling rules, his stock figures to soar. Jordan is the most feared rim protector in the league. He is unstoppable diving to the rim. He shot 71% from the field this season and no one else was over 57.2. He has mastered his craft, except the part about making free throws. But if Sunday night was indeed the tipping point on the hacking debate, Jordan’s fatal flaw will become far less significant. In the final minutes, the camera caught him on the bench, where he theatrically smoothed his eyebrows and grinned for the Jumbotron. The NBA cares deeply about its image and entertainment value. The long parades to the line could soon be a part of his past.
Many suitors will pursue Jordan, but the Clippers can pay him the most, and he is crucial to their success. Look, for instance, at how they’ve spooked James Harden. This season, Harden averaged 27.4 points and was arguably the best offensive player in the league. This series, though, Harden has been held under his average in three of four games and has yet to shoot better than 50%. While J.J. Redick is the primary defender on Harden, Jordan is the one waiting for him at the basket, contesting Harden’s shots without swatting his arms. Defending Harden, but not fouling him, is a near impossible trick. The Clippers are pulling it off.
That’s why Rivers doesn’t bench Jordan when he clanks some free throws—even 20 free throws, as he did Sunday. At halftime, Griffin told his friend, “Look at everything that happened. Look at all the things they did to slow the game down. And we’re still up.” Jordan could have missed all 38 free throws he tried and the Clippers still would have won in a rout. Imagine, though, if all those possessions ending in Jordan free throws were instead Paul floaters, or Griffin jumpers, or Jordan lobs. How potent would the Clippers be then?
If Sunday was any indication, the NBA may find out.