After another contentious affair between the L.A. Clippers and the Houston Rockets, Doc Rivers finished his press conference with some advice:
"Protect the tunnels."
The Clippers and Rockets have gone at each other during their last few meetings, highlighted by an infamous incident when Chris Paul reportedly attempted to get to the Clippers locker room through secret tunnels in Staples Center.
The feud didn't get that far Thursday night, but there was still enough bad blood to result in two ejections (both on the Clippers side) and another two technicals for the Rockets. As the Clippers lost for the first time in 15 home games, they could only lament their lack of composure; this is the second time they have had a fourth-quarter ejection in a game against Houston this year.
Paul George took the blame for his team not keeping its cool. "That’s on myself, being one of the veterans on the team," George said postgame. "Taking the focus off the officiating. We’ll be better. We’re a work in progress."
The Clippers certainly didn't look like a work in progress during a phenomenal first half that might have been their best sustained stretch of play this season. LA built a 15-point halftime lead on 56% shooting from the field and only 7 turnovers. George was electric with 18 points, and Kawhi Leonard and Montrezl Harrell chipped in 17 and 13 apiece. The team was moving the ball well, getting the offense going early, and playing at its best pace.
Their defense was equally impressive. Although some early traps against James Harden failed to have the desired effect, the Clippers still limited Harden to 7 first-half points. Russell Westbrook had 15, but it took him 15 shots to get there.
Unfortunately, the Clippers failed to keep that momentum going in the second half. Instead of maintaining the offensive pace from the first half, the Clippers got stagnant and devolved into their worst isolation tendencies, as it was predicted they might.
Leonard put it best when describing the team's second-half struggles. "We didn’t have no pace, really. Just coming down, one-dribble shots, we really didn’t run no offense. Just very slow," he said postgame.
L.A. only scored four baskets in the entire third quarter, ad started giving the ball away carelessly. Meanwhile, Westbrook got going attacking the rim and Harden got in his bag, juking George to start to develop a rhythm.
Nine Clippers free throws kept the team within three heading into the fourth, but the entire tenor of the game had changed.
The Clippers probably could have won the game on the strength of their individual talent, but Lou Williams' ejection robbed the team of their crunch-time playmaker. Like L.A. found out against Chicago, the team is a lot easier to scheme for down the stretch when one of its three offensive stars is missing, and even the duo of Leonard and George wasn't enough to carry the Clippers in the fourth quarter.
While the Rockets continued to generate actions toward the basket, mostly Westbrook's doing, Leonard struggled to move P.J. Tucker, one of the most physical defenders in the league. The Clippers had a quick 20-4 burst when they started running some pin downs to free George and Landry Shamet, but the ball once again stuck when the game got tight.
The Clippers fall to 21-9, only 3.5 games back of first place in the Western Conference, but they certainly expected better after such a strong start against a conference rival. Unfortunately, they lost their heads late, and their inability to execute on offense reflected that.