It may be late in the season, but there will be no reprieve from the NBA schedule for the Los Angeles Clippers or Houston Rockets, as they will be playing the second game of a back-to-back at the Toyota Center on Saturday.
The Clippers come into the contest having lost two of their last three contests and will be finishing up a four-game road trip caused by the NCAA tournament. They spent Friday night in San Antonio, taking a lead into the last minute before a Tim Duncan three-point play with 2.2 seconds spurred the Spurs' victory (pun intended).
Friday's loss, compounded with a defeat last Sunday against Dallas, has caused the Clippers to cede control of the third seed in the Western Conference. They are now tied with the Nuggets and Grizzlies in the loss column, putting them in danger of losing home-court advantage in the playoffs.
Meanwhile, the Rockets are just continuing their happy-go-lucky road to the postseason. They fell to Memphis on Friday—a loss that put their No. 6 seed dreams in even direr straits. Getting the No. 6 seed is critical for Western Conference teams because it means avoiding the Oklahoma City Thunder and possibly having a better chance at pulling an upset.
With both teams jockeying for playoff position, this is a game strong enough to overshadow any NCAA tournament contest. Here is a complete breakdown of everything you need to know in preparation for Saturday's clash of Western Conference foes.
Start Time: Saturday, March 30 at 8:00 p.m. ET
Location: Toyota Center in Houston
Team Records: Los Angeles Clippers (49-24) vs. Houston Rockets (39-33)
TV Info: CSN Houston
Live Stream: NBA League Pass (Pay service)
Clippers Injury Report (Via CBS Sports)
F Trey Thompkins, Knee, Out
G Chauncey Billups, Groin, Doubtful
Rockets Injury Report (Via CBS Sports)
Key Storyline: Can the Clippers Fix Their Clutch Woes Before the Playoffs?
The Clippers have lost two games in the past week to playoff contenders, and in both games, they held the lead in the waning moments. It’s a problem that screams “anomaly” initially, but the numbers tell a different story.
As a team, the Clippers have been among the league’s worst teams in crunch time—defined in this space as any time a team is ahead or behind by five points or fewer in the last three minutes. According to NBA.com’s stats database, the Clippers have been outscored by 6.7 points per 100 possession in these situations, ranking 24th in the league. Their luminaries include wretched bottom-feeders like Orlando and New Orleans and the walking offensive mess known as the 76ers.
For a team with NBA Finals aspirations, these issues could be a death-knell. Possessions become more sparse during the postseason as pace slows, leading to an increased propensity for close games and “clutch” situations. Without an improvement to at least league-average differentials, the Clippers could be looking at a first-round exit rather than hoisting their first banner.
The answer to why the Clippers are bad in clutch situations is pretty simple: They aren’t inventive offensively and have struggled all season to defend in isolations, which increase, as teams love “hero ball” in the last minutes.
We’ll get to the Clippers’ struggles defensively in isolation in a later section, but this stat bears mentioning: The Clippers give up 115.3 points per 100 possessions in “clutch” situations, the fourth-worst rate in the league. They are behind only Cleveland, Toronto and New Orleans in defensive putridity, all of which have been dreaming of ping-pong balls since November.
Offensively, the Clippers are seventh in the league at 108.6 points per 100 possessions, which is just fine. What isn’t fine is how the Clippers get those points. More specifically, upon whom the scoring burden is thrust.
Last Sunday, much ballyhoo was had over Chris Paul scoring the Clippers’ final 10 points versus Dallas. Paul single-handedly kept his team in the game, as the lid stayed firmly planted over the goal for his teammates. The Clippers star made all four of his shots in those final minutes before the Mavericks pulled away in overtime for a 109-102 victory.
What looks initially like a fun exercise in "hero ball" actually working is actually more indicative of the Clippers’ problems than anything. Much like Mike Brown during LeBron James’ days in Cleveland, Vinny del Negro has been unable to develop any semblance of clutch offense other than, “Here Chris, you take it.”
Here is a look at a typical Clippers “clutch” set. They’re faking setting a pick-and-roll action here—this set is designed simply to get Paul matched up against Mike James. All four other Clippers keep to the left side of the floor as CP3 cold-bloodedly knocks down a jumper in James’ face:
Another similar set came on the Clippers' last notable fourth-quarter possession. Here, the Clippers give Paul a mid-iso and split the four remaining players on each side of the floor. They're hoping that Paul either gets to go one-on-one versus Shawn Marion or that weak-side help comes and gives Paul an easy pass. No thanks to Blake Griffin, Paul finishes with a difficult layup to take the lead:
Those are uninventive, basic sets that put the entire burden on Paul to make a play. It's no surprise that he's the only Clipper who even remotely sniffs being "clutch," per NBA.com's measurements. They are over-reliant on him in late-game situations, and it could come back to bite them down the stretch.
X-Factor: How Houston Defends in Transition
A byproduct of running a high-octane offense that emphasizes three-pointers is that you give up a lot of long rebounds. Long rebounds work much like turnovers in that they give offenses a quick head start in transition and can force mismatches for easy baskets. Any team that runs at a high pace cannot even for a second hesitate to get back in transition.
If a team defends well in transition, it can avoid hemorrhaging points defensively and run on both ends at an efficient rate. The Rockets rank 19th in defensive efficiency this season, per NBA.com, but they remain laughably bad in transition.
According to Synergy Sports, Houston allows 1.19 points per possession in defensive transition, the fourth-worst rate in the league. That comes partially from the fact that few of the team's top players are plus on-ball defenders, but the Rockets also lack even the most basic fundamentals and requisite effort at times.
Perhaps the most comical instance of this came just on Friday. Watch as noted ball-handling wizard Tayshaun Prince makes the entire Rockets defense look like fools. Jeremy Lin almost falls on his face, and Chandler Parsons gets crossed over so bad you'd swear he was playing hopscotch:
That's an extreme case, mostly used because of its amusement value. But Houston has been awful getting back all season, which could put the Rockets in a precarious position against a Clippers team boasting some of the best transition talents in basketball.
Synergy Sports measures the Clippers as scoring 1.16 points per 100 possessions in transition—the eighth-best rate in the NBA. They have been especially good when Paul is on the court, obviously, and Lamar Odom has always been noted for his excellence running the floor.
Friday night's game also gave us some of that quintessential Clippers transition action. While a possible foul set up this action, the Clippers' wing players have been great this season at finding open cutters, with Matt Barnes feeding Odom here:
The Clippers aren't on Miami's level or anything, but they will undoubtedly give Houston problems in the open court—especially if the Rockets' shots aren't falling early.
Key Matchup: James Harden vs. Clippers' Isolation Defense
The Rockets aren't the only team in Saturday night's clash with their problems in a specific defensive area.
As previously mentioned, the numbers point to the Clippers being a bottom-half team against isolation. Teams score 0.84 points per possession on isolation plays against L.A., which ranks 22nd in the league, per Synergy Sports.
Isos are overwhelmingly considered one of basketball's least efficient plays, but the Clippers' duality between aggressive on-ball tactics and mediocre help allows teams to score at a high rate. And as one might expect, James Harden is one of the league's best and most prolific isolation players, averaging 0.95 points per possession.
Harden did not play in the teams' previous meeting due to injury, but you can see some dramatic changes in Houston's offensive philosophy in their January meeting specifically meant to take advantage of L.A.'s isolation deficiencies.
The most obvious facet of the Rockets' offensive philosophy is their reliance on pick-and-roll ball-handling. Harden and Jeremy Lin both excel in that area, and Houston uses a high percentage of its possessions with a pick-and-roll ball-handler finishing the play.
According to Synergy Sports, 12.7 percent of the Rockets' offensive possessions are finished by a pick-and-roll ball-handler. They score 0.89 points per possession on those plays, which is the best rate in the league. Here is a typical offensive play, where Harden takes advantage of the always-lackadaisical Warriors big men for an easy three-pointer:
What was interesting about Houston's strategy the last time it played the Clippers is a complete abandonment of those types of finishes. A pick-and-roll ball-handler finished a Rockets possession just three times during their Jan. 15 meeting—good for a rate nearly 10 percent less than their average.
Instead, Houston replaced those pick-and-roll finishes with an abundance of isolation sets. The Rockets finished 21.5 percent of their possessions against the Clippers—more than double their season-long rate. Essentially, isolation plays completely replaced the pick-and-roll in their arsenal:
The Rockets did this for two reasons, one being Los Angeles' inability to defend isolations. The other was the Clippers' top-notch pick-and-roll defense. They rank second in the NBA at stopping pick-and-roll ball-handlers, per Synergy Sports.
It's tough to draw anything of significance from a one-game sample size, but Houston repeated its lack of pick-and-roll finishes even when Harden was out of the lineup in February. The Rockets have long been at the forefront of statistical innovation, so this is likely something they noticed in film sessions and put to good use.
Projected Starting Lineups
PG: Chris Paul
SG: Willie Green
SF: Caron Butler
PF: Blake Griffin
C: DeAndre Jordan
PG: Jeremy Lin
SG: James Harden
SF: Chandler Parsons
PF: Donatas Motiejunas
C: Omer Asik
The Rockets have been one of the league's best teams at home this season, and this will be their last chance to take down the Clippers this season.
However, L.A. has gone on the road once already and beaten Houston—and it did so without Chris Paul. The Clippers star point guard will be in the lineup Saturday night by all accounts, and while this certainly won't be a blow out, Paul gives his team the slightest of edges. Jamal Crawford will also need to step up off the bench, and he's been solid against Houston this season as one would expect.
Look for a high-scoring affair, but the Clippers will keep pace with Denver for the No. 3 seed and get a close victory.
Score Prediction: Clippers 114, Rockets 107