The Clippers are well-positioned to knock off the Rockets—if they have Chris Paul.
Matchup: (2) Houston Rockets vs. (3) Los Angeles Clippers
Season Series: 2-2
Efficiency rankings: Houston (Off. Rating: 12, Def. Rating: 6, Net Rating: 6), Los Angeles (Off. Rating: 1, Def. Rating: 15, Net Rating: 2)
By the time their second-round series finally tips off, the Rockets will have gone nearly a week since their last playoff game. Every player and team responds differently to that kind of layoff; while some prefer the circadian rhythms of game days and off days, others benefit even more from the physical relief of a few consecutive days' rest.
We don't yet know which applies to the Rockets. What we do know is that Houston's opponent, the Los Angeles Clippers, will tip off just 48 hours removed from a seven-game marathon that tested its physical limits. In the final game of that series alone, Chris Paul suffered a hamstring injury that Clippers coach Doc Rivers expects to sideline the point guard for Game 1, Blake Griffin suffered hard falls, and reserve big man Glen Davis returned to fight his way through an ankle injury.
Both are excellent, formidable teams that ranked among the West's best this season. Yet they meet under radically different circumstances—the Rockets having won their first-round series with relative ease, the Clippers victorious over the defending champs but at a clear cost.
The Case For The Rockets
Generally good health and a week's worth of rest will only help Houston to better maximize its active roster. Fortunately for the Rockets, they have quite a team; James Harden leads an offense capable of explosive surges as Dwight Howard, now back in the lineup and moving well, champions a defense that finished sixth in points allowed per possession with him missing significant time. Between them are supporting parts suited to their particular roles in a way that allows for a functional balance.
Hitting that equilibrium is trickier for the Rockets than other teams, though at the top of its game Houston can roll with the NBA's best. The Clippers are among them, albeit with a shallow, injury-riddled rotation that could make their run more precarious as the playoffs wear on. Another extended series of long nights for the starters could certainly take its toll.
Trust that the Rockets will be in a position to pounce. They're among the best when it comes to capitalizing on an opponent's mistakes—an engine that converts turnovers into transition offense and tardy defensive rotations into easy scores. The margin turns as Houston's opponent gets sloppy, which under the circumstances might be unavoidable for Los Angeles.
On the other side of the ball, slowing Harden is in itself the work of a full, committed team. Doing so when he has Howard, Terrence Jones, and Josh Smith lurking around the rim with shooters clearing out room can at times be more than even a smart, hard-working defense can handle. Houston will rely on Harden's shot creation to sustain and overwhelm as it sorts out its defensive issues from a shaky first round. Winning a scoring contest against the injured, Rondo-distracted Mavericks is one thing. Surviving the Clippers is an entirely different matter. Yet the Rockets are capable, particularly with adequate time to prepare and a precision more in line with their regular season performance.
After all, Houston was one of the few teams in the regular season to get the better of L.A.'s top five—one of the single best lineups in the league on balance. Extending that two-game trend (Griffin missed two games in the regular season series) over the course of an entire series would be an amazing accomplishment. Having Howard to ward off drives and protect the rim in addition to that established success, though, should at least allow the Rockets to fare better against the Clippers' starters than most.
The Case For The Clippers
Any team responsible for the Spurs' undoing demands respect. The inconsistency of the Clippers' regular season defense has washed away almost completely in the playoffs. What remained in the first round was an aggressive, high-energy system that, remarkably, kept up with San Antonio's ball movement step for step.
Houston's offense presents a very different challenge: One more blunt and less surgical, a departure Los Angeles won't likely mind at all. There won't be the same race between defensive rotation and the extra pass, nor between pick-and-roll pressure and a quick dive to the rim. The Clipper defense bore the ceaseless, pass-happy execution of the Spurs—the offense best positioned to exploit its structural weaknesses. If it can bring the same possession-to-possession rigor against the Rockets, the series could quickly fall under the Clippers' control.
It aids L.A.'s case that the strain on its bench won't be so painful in this series. There is room to hide the Clippers' lesser perimeter defenders (like Jamal Crawford, who can fill for Paul) on Jason Terry or Trevor Ariza, and perhaps even opportunity to play Spencer Hawes according to the regular season's precedent. Every minute logged still matters. The Rockets' style and rotation is just forgiving in ways that San Antonio's was not, making the Clippers' shallow rotation a less concerning issue.
With that, Los Angeles' efficient offense will be able to pile up points in its best lineups and more comfortably sustain in its lesser ones. Houston will make its runs, win games, and dominate matchups for stretches at a time. It still might not be able to keep up with the two-way juggernaut L.A. proved to be in the first round and could continue to be going forward.
Chris Paul, Clippers. This is a designation usually reserved for role players with flighty games, but the real pivot point of the series is Paul’s hamstring. In Game 7 against the Spurs, Paul’s left leg was first stiff and later lifeless—dragged around on the court as if Paul were sporting a peg. The Clippers may not have the juice (and certainly not the depth) to overcome so serious an injury for the course of a full series, making the number of games Paul rests and the return from those games missed both matters of prime importance.
Telling stat: 38.5%
That was Harden's field goal percentage against the Clippers this season. The Clippers largely trusted J.J. Redick to fend off Harden (with ample help, of course) when these two teams met and made out remarkably well. Only so much can be done to keep Harden off the line (he still averaged 10.3 free throw attempts per game in the season series). Still, Redick proved to be among the better defenders in the league when it came to contesting and containing Harden's drives as much as possible.
Clippers in six. One can't make a pick in this series without first making some big, injury-related assumptions. So long as Paul doesn't miss multiple games to his hamstring injury, the Clips should have enough of an edge to pull out a hard-fought series.