HOUSTON—Each of the four ongoing NBA playoff series has seen the same storyline play out: a quality team organically returning to what it does best. Golden State evened its series with Memphis by ratcheting up its defensive pressure and tethering its offense to Stephen Curry’s resurgent jumper. LeBron James finally found the right offensive balance in Game 5 against the Bulls, finishing 14 of 24 from the field after shooting 37.7% in the first four games of the series. Atlanta not only ran the best version of its offense yet during Game 4 against Washington, but reaped the benefits of its good interior looks finally falling.
Houston, for its part, assumed the form that earned the team elite defensive standing and won it the No. 2 seed in the West during the regular season. With their playoff survival at stake, the Rockets rebounded from back-to-back drubbings in Los Angeles to play their best, most complete game of the season: a 124–103 victory over the formidable Clippers.
This was a good team playing, at long last, the way it’s capable. The losses to this point—in Game 1 while Chris Paul sat, and in Games 3 and 4 by a combined 58 points—have been unseemly. Yet there was a clear disconnect between the product the Rockets put on the floor and that which carried them through injury and all during the regular season.
“Give them credit, they took us out of our game [during the earlier part of the series],” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said. “But I didn’t think we had played our game. Tonight was the first time I saw a team out there downhill, attacking, going at 'em. I had kinda been waiting for that team to show up for awhile. That’s how we have to play. We have to get points in the paint. We have to be downhill. We have to be getting to the line. We have to be offensive rebounding. That’s the strength of our team.”
This wasn't the product of any grand strategic overture. Houston's changes (Josh Smith's insertion into the starting lineup, Trevor Ariza spending more time guarding J.J. Redick, etc.) were subtle, and the swing in its performance anything but. To go from a 33-point loss in Game 4 to a 21-point win in Game 5 would seem to demand some technical explanation. Yet the simple, analytically inconvenient truth is that teams ebb and flow in ways that sometimes have less to do with adjustment and more to do with the fuel behind them.
“I thought we just had more juice,” McHale said.
With it, Houston locked into its execution in a way it hadn't all series. Passing and dribble penetration launched the Rockets headlong at the rim, where DeAndre Jordan waited. His presence in that space had made things uncomfortable for Houston's finishers through four games. On Tuesday, however, Jordan picked up incidental fouls that pulled him from the game and shook down the Clipper rotation. Even when Glen Davis and Spencer Hawes played relatively well in his stead, Los Angeles suffered since they're not springy, gigantic rim protectors.
[daily_cut.nba]Jordan doesn't always exhibit perfect defensive discipline. Still, he's the crux of the Clippers' interior defense and the team's only real chance of denying attempts at the basket. His removal from the game exacerbated what had already been a concerning start. It was L.A.'s laggy rotations that helped get Jordan in foul trouble in the first place. Without him around to help sweep up those assignments other Clippers had botched, the Clippers' defense was strung out completely.
“[Jordan's foul trouble] hurt us,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “But the reason DeAndre was in foul trouble was because they were in the paint all game and a lot of that wasn’t his fault. He was just trying to cover up for a lot of our mistakes. So, to me, we did a poor job of protecting DeAndre. He protects us all the time; we didn’t protect him at all. So we have to be better.”
Houston, as has been the case for the bulk of its season, seized the opportunity. Harden (26 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists), despite playing through a cold and fighting through multiple defenders, was able to work deep into the lane for scoring and assisting opportunities. Dwight Howard (20 points, 15 rebounds, two blocks) did stellar work in freeing himself around the basket and creating extra possessions. The ball progressed from option to option at a better rhythm for the Rockets than it had all series. For whatever reason, the Clippers, who to this point had kept their show-and-recover defense to tempo, couldn't keep up. Help came late if at all. Once that trend had been established, other defenders became antsy to the point of leaving open shooters and cutters.
“I think we broke a lot of our principles, especially me,” Paul said. “I recall a few plays where I would help when I shouldn't have helped and every time I did, it sort of left Jason Tery wide open for three.”
Ditto for Matt Barnes and others in their coverage of Trevor Ariza. Together, Terry and Ariza combined for seven three-pointers on 14 attempts. They were the outlets that made the Clippers pay consistently for their collapsing coverage into the paint, which undoubtedly stemmed from the difficulty of defending the interior without the team's best shot-blocker. Jordan played just 10 minutes in the entire first half. By the time his foul trouble allowed him to rejoin his team, the Clippers trailed 63–48.
L.A. never seemed to find the footing needed to mount a comeback. The defense continued to hemorrhage points in the third quarter and beyond, overwriting whatever progress the Clippers made on offense. Even that end of the floor was an ordeal; the Rockets played up and into Paul, Redick, Jamal Crawford and Austin Rivers as much as possible, making waves that disrupted the whole of the Clippers' execution.
“I didn't like our offense at all, honestly,” Rivers said. “I know that's not the team that I've gotten accustomed to watching play. Now give them credit: I thought a lot of it was due to their pressure. But I just didn't like how we played offense. I didn't recognize a lot of the things we were running.”
Ailing defense and disrupted offense—Houston had left L.A. without recourse. Such is the power of playing with energy. There are cases where coaches and players will cite their energy level as the basis for failure in a dubious way; it can be, after all, a convenient means for losing teams to alleviate scrutiny of their game plan and deflect praise of their victors.
This was neither. There was a tangible difference in the way the Rockets and Clippers took to the court in Game 5. One had zip its every move. The other fell not to laziness, but the inevitability of a letdown.