The Los Angeles Clippers rolled to their sixth straight win with a 120-105 road victory over the Houston Rockets on Thursday at Toyota Center.
The Clips took a 5-4 lead with 9:44 remaining in the first quarter and never looked back, outscoring Houston 33-23 after 12 minutes and 67-44 by halftime.
Kawhi Leonard led the Clips with 25 points. Seven-foot center Ivica Zubac was able to take advantage of the Rockets' small-ball strategy, posting 17 points and 12 rebounds in just 20 minutes.
The Rockets had a night to forget offensively, hitting just 7-of-42 three-pointers and shooting 36.1 percent overall. Russell Westbrook was the lone bright spot in the starting lineup, scoring 29 points on 11-of-27 shooting, grabbing 15 rebounds and dishing five assists.
James Harden struggled with a 4-of-17 night (0-of-8 from deep) for 16 points.
The 43-19 Clips maintained their hold on second place in the Western Conference. The 39-22 Rockets moved into a fourth-place tie with the Utah Jazz.
Rockets G Russell Westbrook: 29 PTS, 15 REB, 5 AST
Rockets G James Harden: 16 PTS, 7 REB, 4 AST
Rockets F Jeff Green: 17 PTS, 2 REB, 1 STL
Clippers F Kawhi Leonard: 25 PTS, 6 REB, 5 AST
Clippers F Paul George: 13 PTS, 9 REB, 7 AST
Clippers C Ivica Zubac: 17 PTS, 12 REB, 1 BLK
Clippers' Starting Lineup Posts Masterpiece
George finished the night with his team outscoring the Rockets by 17 points with him on the court.
A plus-17 outing is an incredible one for any player, but on this night, that figure was actually the worst among the five Clippers starters.
They ranged from George's plus-17 to Leonard's plus-33.
Everyone contributed. Patrick Beverley scored just five points on 1-of-2 shooting but played tough on both ends, finishing with two steals and plus-28. George flirted with a triple-double. Marcus Morris Sr. hit a trio of three-pointers.
But the two who led the Clips on this night were Leonard and Zubac.
Leonard had a fairly typical game, which is to say that he excelled on both ends, did a little of everything and led his team to a win. The Rockets had no answer for him defensively as he shot an efficient 8-of-15 from the field and 4-of-7 from three-point range.
Zubac was the X-factor, though.
He had four points and five rebounds in the first 4:15. He had 10 points in a 3:22 stretch in the second. And he had five more boards in the third to help put the game away and make the fourth a formality.
Zubac is just another weapon in a deep 10-man rotation that is arguably the league's most versatile and flexible, one that is capable of matching up with any team in the league.
Furthermore, not everyone has to be on their games for the Clips to excel. The bench Thursday was largely quiet outside Montrezl Harrell's 19-point, 10-rebound double-double.
On other nights, though, the reserves could carry the day since they're basically good enough to be a halfway decent NBA starting lineup with Harrell, Lou Williams, Reggie Jackson, Landry Shamet and JaMychal Green.
But on Thursday, it was the starters who led the Clips to yet another victory en route to a huge showdown with the West-leading Lakers.
Houston's Successful Small-Ball Strategy Falls Flat Versus Clippers
The Rockets are employing 6'5" P.J. Tucker as their small-ball center, which spreads the floor out just about as wide as possible and generally has been creating havoc for opponents. They've held their own down low and on the boards and have been shooting (and making) a wave of threes from all positions.
Of note, the Rockets prior to the Clips loss were 10-3 since center Clint Capela played his final game for Houston against the Portland Trail Blazers in January.
That's an excellent record, but one that's hard to fathom after watching the Rockets' small-ball strategy suffer at the hands of the Clippers at home.
Ultimately, there are two takeaways after this one.
The first is a silver lining, and the second is perhaps foreshadowing tough days ahead.
First, one awful night when the Rockets' potential small-ball pitfalls on both ends—getting dominated by a big man down low and going cold from beyond the three-point line—shouldn't erase what has been a largely successful strategy.
Houston has beaten playoff-bound teams during this stretch, including the Boston Celtics (twice), the Los Angeles Lakers and Dallas Mavericks. Their first nine wins in the 10-4 span were by seven or more points.
Sure, this one was ugly, but it's important to keep perspective of the bigger picture.
And yet, the Rockets' performance has to be at least a little concerning given the opponent.
A date with the Clips in the Western Conference semifinals is certainly possible, with L.A. hanging onto the No. 2 seed and the Rockets just 2.5 games out of third.
Early returns indicate that this Clips team is well-equipped to match up with the smaller Rockets. They can go to a center who can take advantage of the situation in Zubac or simply go small themselves with a player like Marcus Morris or JaMychal Green down low, both of whom can shoot threes and defend the perimeter like Tucker.
Rob Perez of the Action Network explained in detail how the Clips pose a big problem:
Rob Perez @WorldWideWob
when the Rockets go 5 out 0 in and Harden has the ball the Clips have the perfect defensive scheme...Kawhi cheats off his man in corner to clog penetration, Beverley playing centerfield allowing Westbrook a 3 if he wants it. which he doesnt. been giving smallball fits all night. https://t.co/yQ7Use6aXE
The Rockets aren't going to go ice cold from the field every night. Of note, James Harden isn't about to post a goose egg in the three-pointers made stat on a regular basis. A better night beyond the arc obviously would have made this game more respectable.
But their road to the NBA Finals may very well include the Clippers at some point. And if it does, the significant edge looks like it goes to L.A.
The Clippers will face the L.A. Lakers in a potential Western Conference Finals preview on Sunday at 3:30 p.m. ET in Staples Center.
Houston will visit the Charlotte Hornets on Saturday at 5 p.m. ET in Spectrum Center.