The Los Angeles Clippers are back at full strength, but face the ever-feisty Houston Rockets at the Staples Center tonight. Defeating them means a three-game winning streak, and Houston will be out to stop that at all costs.
What makes this game special is that both teams like to run. Both enjoy a fast-paced offense, and communication is key from all parties. In a system where point guards are king, this one is going to be fun to watch.
The Clippers definitely have the upper hand. They beat the Rockets back on January 15 in a high scoring matchup, and the fact that it was at the Toyota Center added to the significance. Not only was Houston defeated, but it was defeated at a place it has gone 18-8 on the season.
Round 2 will be at the Staples Center, and the passionate LA crowd will be roaring for Lob City from start to finish. Just the same, Houston is coming off a big win against the Golden State Warriors on February 12, and is looking for another one.
This means that the Clippers need to find the balance between fast-paced offense and tough defense, which should make for a great game in every way, shape and form.
Time: Wednesday, February 13, 10:30 p.m. EST
TV: NBA TV, CSN Houston, PRIME TICKET
Records: Houston Rockets (29-25) vs. Los Angeles Clippers (37-17)
Betting Line: Clippers -10, via Bovada
Injuries: James Harden (ankle, doubtful), Toney Douglas (hip, day-to-day), Trey Thompkins (knee, out), Caron Butler (back, day-to-day), Chauncey Billups (back, day-to-day), via ESPN
Key Storyline: City of Angels Prepares for Battle of Offenses
If there's one thing that can be said about both the Rockets and the Clippers, it's that they like to run. This has resulted in strong offenses on both ends, with Houston ranking first in points scored at 106.3 per game and Los Angeles ranking 10th with 99.9 per game.
Despite the discrepancy, the Clippers ran the table in Houston on January 15. Even without star point guard Chris Paul, Los Angeles was able to ride 30 points from sixth man Jamal Crawford and 19 points plus seven rebounds from Eric Bledsoe en route to a 117-106 victory. Los Angeles also shot an astounding 58 percent from three-point range in the win.
James Harden led the Rockets with 23 points, but the team making just 35 percent of its threes did not help matters. Throw in that the dynamic 2-guard is likely out of Round 2 with a sprained ankle (h/t Marc J. Spears of Yahoo Sports), and this game becomes even more of an uphill battle for Houston.
This means that if Houston's offense was communicating well as of late, said communication needs to be even better tonight. Everyone must be in playmaking mode while also having 100 percent confidence, taking an open shot if the opportunity presents itself. All in all, there must be zero hesitation.
This is going to be tough with the game at the Staples Center and a rowdy Clippers crowd at full volume from start to finish, but the Rockets have proven capable of breaking out some basketball magic before. Tonight needs to be one of those nights.
Key Matchup: Chris Paul vs. Jeremy Lin
Any run-and-gun offense is nothing without a reliable point guard to run it, and these two teams are no exception. The battle of Houston's Jeremy Lin and Los Angeles' Chris Paul is not only one of youth vs. experience, but also the very one that will decide the game.
Let's start with Lin. He landed a three-year deal with the Rockets after breaking out for the New York Knicks during last season's "Linsanity" phase, and has been able to channel some of last year's lightning into a handful of games this season.
On the whole, however, Lin has not been the electrifying presence Houston fans were hoping for. His defense has been solid at 1.9 steals per game, which ranks fourth in the NBA, but the rest of his game has been a bit of a disappointment.
Lin has posted just 12.6 points and 6.1 assists per game, shooting 44 percent from the field. The Rockets need him to be great tonight and have confidence in his jump shot while also dishing the ball off to an open teammate, but that means he must first defeat Chris Paul.
Per usual, Paul has been having an excellent season. He has averaged 16.6 points and 9.5 assists per game, and has also shot 48 percent from the floor while making 35 percent of his threes. Defensively, Paul leads the league with 2.6 steals per contest.
Paul has also been excellent in his three games since returning from a bruised knee, instantly electrifying the Clippers' offense to a whole new level. He has posted 16.3 points, 6.7 assists and three steals over that stretch, but has also shot an astounding 61 percent from the field and 56 percent from three-point range.
Not only does Paul need to continue to be great for the Clippers tonight, but he also must shut Lin down completely. It's his job to prove that Los Angeles' first win over Houston was anything but a fluke, and he must ensure that Lob City is in full swing against the Rockets' weak defense.
Lin must fight past this effort to keep Houston in the game but against Paul, that's like asking David to go another round with a resurrected Goliath. In basketball terms, that means that fans should prepare for an epic showdown.
X-Factor: Jamal Crawford
When push comes to shove, this game could be all about who has the better second-unit spark. With Houston already playing short-handed, the Clippers have the upper hand in the form of Jamal Crawford.
The former Michigan Wolverine has been an excellent sixth man for Lob City this season, posting 17.1 points per game while shooting a respectable 37 percent from three-point range. Over his last five games, however, Crawford has been absolutely phenomenal.
Through that stretch, he has averaged 22 points per contest while shooting 54 percent from the field and an incredible 42 percent from downtown. This can be attributed to Crawford's keen ability to find his own shot under any circumstances. He can drive the lane for a layup and a foul, create a jumper off the dribble and if he's left wide open anywhere, the opposing team had better hold its breath.
Crawford needs to play just that type of game tonight. He must create his own shot while also allowing his teammates to do so for him. If he sees an opening in the lane, he must take advantage of the opportunity and if he draws the foul, all the better.
The man simply needs to keep on playing like the Sixth Man of the Year candidate that he is, and that alone gives the Clippers a strong chance at winning. If Houston can slow him down, a Lob City victory becomes extremely difficult.
Predicted Starting Lineups
PG: Jeremy Lin
SG: Carlos Delfino
SF: Chandler Parsons
PF: Patrick Patterson
C: Omer Asik
PG: Chris Paul
SG: Willie Green
SF: Matt Barnes
PF: Blake Griffin
C: DeAndre Jordan
The Rockets may enter this game fresh off a win, but they'll exit the arena following a loss. James Harden is just too important to the team's offense in both the scoring and playmaking department, not to mention his incredible defense, and the team will suffer greatly without him.
Jeremy Lin will be unable to channel Linsanity and have a great performance, with Chris Paul's defense holding him to a merely average game. Speaking of Paul, look for him to have a point guard's double-double as well as an excellent shooting and defensive night.
The rest of the Clippers will also perform well. Blake Griffin will unleash some thunderous dunks, and DeAndre Jordan will provide great defense in the paint. Off the bench, Jamal Crawford will put up starter-like numbers as Houston turns to Chandler Parsons and Omer Asik to step up the offensive effort.
The long and short of it is that this game belongs to Lob City. The score may be a bit close, but mark my words: the Clippers will be in full control from the opening tip until the final buzzer.
Los Angeles Clippers 109, Houston Rockets 100