Our second look at a potential Western Conference finals was another thriller on Friday as the Clippers' evened the season series 1–1 with a 122-119 win at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. James Harden was brilliant once again, but the Rockets' core failed to deliver as Lou Williams and Kawhi Leonard carried the Clippers down the stretch. The Rockets are now 11–5 in 2019-20, dropping two-straight for the second time this season. We'll see these two teams battle again in Los Angeles on Dec. 19.
Here are three takeaways from Friday's loss.
Harden Ultra-Efficient in Loss
James Harden turned in another MVP performance on Friday night, playing his most efficient game of the season in Houston's loss. The two-time scoring champion finished the night with 37 points, but his efficiency was the true headline at the Staples Center. Harden made nine of 16 shots on the evening, making five triples and 14 free throws. He added 12 assists in the loss, falling two rebounds short of a triple-double.
Los Angeles employed a scheme similar to the Nuggets two nights prior against Harden, doubling him at nearly every pick-and-roll opportunity. The Clippers were eager to help off Houston's perimeter shooters, daring them to hit the open three or make a play rolling downhill. Ben McLemore feasted off the double teams, hitting four threes en route to 14 points. Russell Westbrook's performance was more uneven. He finished the night 9-22 from the field, and he went just 1-7 from three, including a misfire in the final minute. Los Angeles' scheme was played to perfection in the game's penultimate possession.
Harden generated 30 points via assist for the Rockets, including six made threes. But The Beard's brilliance wasn't enough to carry Houston to a road win over perhaps the league's best team. The Rockets' supporting cast was lacking down the stretch.
Leonard Controls Fourth Quarter
Friday wasn't the most explosive performance of the season for Leonard, though the Finals MVP certainly proved his clutch mettle again in Los Angeles' win over the Rockets. Leonard made four of five shots in the fourth quarter, pouring in 11 points including the Clippers' first six of the quarter. The performance was classic Leonard. He buried two jumpers from 18 feet and another from 19 feet in the fourth quarter, closing out the Rockets with a shot attempt anathema to Morey ball. We saw a nearly-identical performance from Leonard five months ago as Toronto defeated the Warriors in the NBA Finals.
Leonard is unlikely to compete for the MVP award this season. He'll log less than 70 games, and the counting stats will pale in comparison to Harden, LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo. But don't let Leonard's (relatively) pedestrian numbers obscure his impact. Leonard is arguably the NBA's best player, and after the past six months, he's now assumed the mantle of the game's top closer.
Foul Trouble Looms Large
Both the Rockets and Clippers battled foul trouble in the second half on Friday night, reducing much of the fourth quarter to a slog as the two team's marched to the foul line. Los Angeles' foul woes impacted the team early in the second half, with defensive ace Patrick Beverley picking up his fifth foul with 7:05 left in the third quarter. Beverley battled similar foul trouble in Houston's win at the Toyota Center on Nov. 13, and his absence for much of the fourth quarter allowed James Harden to unleash a barrage of threes en route to 47 points. Houston couldn't capitalize on the stretches without Beverley on Friday.
Beverley was forced to log limited minutes due to his foul trouble. The Rockets' issues impacted their entire team. The Clippers entered the bonus with 11 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, with a four-foul sequence from the Rockets in one minute quickly giving Los Angeles a slate of free trips to the line. 13 of the Clippers' 42 fourth-quarter points came from the charity stripe, and the foul trouble led to defensive reticence from the Rockets, especially early in the fourth. Los Angeles seemed to waltz to the tin at will once Houston entered the penalty.
The Rockets' foul trouble wasn't the their only officiating gripe on Friday. Mike D'Antoni was frustrated with the officials when speaking to reporters postgame, highlighting a missed timeout called by Doc Rivers shortly before Lou Williams buried a three. The shot trimmed Houston's lead to 115-112, setting the stage for Los Angeles' comeback victory.
D'Antoni and the Rockets will voice their gripe with the league office. Ultimately, they have themselves to blame for blowing a six-point lead in the final 90 seconds.
Up Next: vs. Mavericks on Sunday
The Rockets will host Dallas in an afternoon tilt on Sunday as they look to end their two-game losing streak. Houston will attempt to slow down Luka Doncic, who is enjoying perhaps the best season for a 20-year-old in NBA history. The Slovenian sensation enters Sunday nearly averaging a triple-double with 29.9 points, 10.4 rebounds and 9.7 assists per game.
Tip-off from the Toyota Center is slated for 2:30 p.m. CT.