Could the Rockets Outlast Kawhi Leonard, Clippers in a Playoff Series?

Michael Shapiro

The Rockets are preparing to face the Nuggets in round one of the Western Conference playoffs, though it's no guarantee that James Harden and Co. head to Denver to kick off the postseason. The Rockets are currently tied with Oklahoma City for the No. 5 seed in the West, and they're one game shy of the Jazz for the No. 4 spot. The Nuggets could catch the Clippers for the No. 2 seed, sitting 1.5 games back of Los Angeles as the NBA enters the fourth week of its coronavirus suspension. If regular-season games resume, the Rockets' first-round opponent remains a mystery. 

We dug into a potential series between the Rockets and Nuggets on Monday. Today, we'll examine a possible battle between the Rockets and Clippers, in what could be a seven-game fight. Let's check out the tale of the tape with three keys to the matchup.

Harden's Defining Series?

A matchup with the Nuggets could lead to Russell Westbrook establishing himself as the Rockets' leading playmaker. Denver is a shoddy defensive transition team, and the Nuggets don't have the defensive personnel to contain Westbrook's furious drives to the tin. The Clippers have a stronger infrastructure in place. Kawhi Leonard is perhaps the best defensive player on the planet, and Paul George is no slouch. Lineups featuring Leonard, George, Montrezl Harrell and Patrick Beverley are suffocating, allowing just 98.1 points per 100 possessions. Westbrook's open lanes to the tin will come few and far between against Los Angeles. 

Winning a series with the Clippers will require some difficult shot making, a job well suited for James Harden. And the NBA's scoring leader has been quite effective against Los Angeles in 2019-20. Harden dropped 47 on the Clippers on November 13, and he scored 37 points on 16 shots against the Clippers on Nov. 22. Los Angeles has no shortage of defenders to throw at Harden, and Beverley is a constant agitator. Still, Harden seems to relish the opportunity against Leonard, his longtime Western Conference foe. Pulling off an upset over Los Angeles could mark the highlight of Harden's Rockets' tenure.

Containing Kawhi

Load management breaks aside, Kawhi Leonard is perhaps the most reliable superstar in the league, guiding the Clippers with a metronomic consistency. And he's certainly exhibited those qualities against the Rockets in 2019-20. Leonard has two 25-point games against Houston this season, and he scored 24 and 26 points, respectively, in the other two matchups. Good luck forcing a clunker from Leonard, especially in the postseason.

But it's not just the point totals that mark Leonard's reliability. He never appears rattled nor rushed, and he forces games to be played at his speed with a Jordan-esque flare. Leonard will hold a defender on his hip for 10 seconds before bursting toward the tin. He'll appear to aimlessly dribble near the free-throw line prior to raising up for an elbow jumper. Leonard can always get to his spot when needed. Blocking his shot is nearly impossible considering his length and lift. After watching the 2019 playoffs, is there any player you'd rather have late in a game? Leonard has a fair claim as the league's premier clutch scorer. 

Attack of the Clone

Houston dove headfirst into the small-ball revolution as it dealt Clint Capela for Robert Covington in February, and the Rockets now stand as a stark contrast to a slate of Western Conference contenders. The Lakers are a collection of behemoths compared to Houston. Denver and Utah both have All-Star centers, and Dallas has an All-Star talent in the frontcourt with Kristaps Porzingis. The Clippers provide a more comparable foe.

7'0" center Ivica Zubac has logged 62 starts for the Clippers this season, though he plays just 18.1 minutes per game. Los Angeles is at its best when it (relatively) downsizes, using Harrell or Marcus Morris as a crunch time five. The Clippers will match Houston by using five wings at a time, and even the aforementioned big men are nimble and athletic. Hunting a switch isn't so easy when there is no obvious target. The Clippers thrive late in games without a weak link. The Lakers and Nuggets will look to punish Houston in the paint and on the offensive glass, but Doc Rivers' squad provides a different challenge. As we begin a new decade, the Rockets and Clippers will provide a lense into the future of basketball.