On Friday, the LA Clippers stormed into Houston and defeated the Rockets by a final score of 120-105 to even the season series.
Here are some quick thoughts from a big-time win for the Clippers...
1. You can't post-up the Rockets
One reason the Rockets can get away with not playing a traditional centre against most opponents is they have several players on their roster who can hold their own against bigger players in the post. It hasn't prevented teams from trying to post them up - the Rockets are defending the second-most post-ups per game in the league this season, per NBA.com - but they give up only 0.84 points per possession on those plays, which ranks them in the 90th percentile in terms of efficiency.
That number isn't even boosted by what Clint Capela did before he got traded at the deadline. He was actually one of Houston's least effective post defenders. Instead, it's James Harden, Eric Gordon and Robert Covington who check out as some of the best post defenders in the league.
Covington is the only one of the three who really has the length to offer any sort of rim protection, but Harden and Gordon both have the strength to not get backed down, as well as the smarts to come up with deflections. (Players are turning the ball over a ton against Gordon, in particular). The Clippers tried to punish both of the Rockets a couple of times in this game for switching onto one of their bigs, only for it to not go anywhere because neither of them gave up any ground.
As Jared Dubin of FiveThirtyEight recently explained, the Rockets may be short, but they're not exactly small.
2. Have yourself a game, Ivica Zubac!
Houston's ability to defend post-ups well didn't matter much in this one, however, because Montrezl Harrell and Kawhi Leonard are the only players on the Clippers who generate a notable amount of their scoring on the low block.
Instead, the Clippers picked the Rockets apart with pick-and-rolls, Zubac often being the beneficiary.
The 7-footer finished with 17 points and 12 rebounds in 20 minutes. The only shot he missed was a free throw. He was a perfect 6-for-6 from the field and 5-for-6 from the charity stripe.
Most of Zubac's baskets came on plays like this, where the Rockets made - shall we say - questionable decisions defensively:
Feed the big man.- LA Clippers (@LAClippers) March 6, 2020
📺 @FoxSportsWest | @ivicazubac pic.twitter.com/LXETWc3Dsq
Still, Zubac has scored nearly a quarter of his offence this season as the roll man in pick-and-rolls. That's what he does. The Rockets should've been better prepared for it.
3. The Clippers might be Houston's kryptonite
The Clippers started this game with Paul George guarding Russell Westbrook, Leonard guarding Harden and Patrick Beverley running around the court as a free safety.
Even when the Rockets were able to force a switch, it usually ended with Beverley guarding Harden, which isn't a mismatch despite Beverley giving up several inches, or Marcus Morris Sr. guarding him. Harden had more success against Morris than anyone else - he was able to blow by him a couple of times for layups - but it's not as though he's a bad defender. He's just the lesser of four evils.
Reggie Jackson even gave the Clippers some solid minutes off the bench against Westbrook in the first half.
Russ vs. Reggie in the battle of OKC. Jackson is giving the effort but you can see how the Rockets look different *if* and *if* you can stay in front of RW and contest. pic.twitter.com/WRmCsHYX01- Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) March 6, 2020
Ultimately, this is why the Clippers are the one team the Rockets don't want to face in the playoffs - they're better suited than any other team in the Western Conference to match up with their stars in Harden and Westbrook. It starts with Leonard and George, but having players like Beverley and Morris means they can switch switch almost across the board, making the Clippers less vulnerable to the drives and kicks the Rockets are looking for.
Harden and Westbrook finished the game with 16 points and 29 points, respectively. Harden shot 4-for-17 from the field, whereas Westbrook shot 11-for-27. The Clippers made them work for every shot they got.
4. It's hard to win when you don't make shots
The Rockets shot 2-for-22 from the 3-point line in the first half.
You read that right - 2-for-22.
The Clippers deserve some credit for that, but the Rockets missed a decent amount of open 3s. With how reliant they are on those shots - they take and make more 3-pointers than any other team in the league - if they're not falling, they don't stand much of a chance against a team like the Clippers.
The Rockets not being able to buy a shot from the perimeter contributed to their sluggish first half, as they fell behind by 23 points after two quarters of play. It's not a surprise that they weren't able to come back from that large of a margin.
The Rockets finished the game shooting 7-for-42 from 3-point range. Not great.
5. Kawhi Leonard is really good
I mean, look at this sorcery:
HAVE MERCY, KAWHI!@kawhileonard | #ClipperNation pic.twitter.com/WsbsMBhgwB- LA Clippers (@LAClippers) March 6, 2020
Those were just two of the 25 points Leonard scored in the 28 minutes he was on the court. He also added six rebounds, five assists, two steals and one block to his stat line. The Clippers outscored the Rockets by 33 points when he was on the court, giving him the best plus-minus in the game.
Leonard didn't crack the top-five of our most recent MVP ladder. That was probably an oversight. There's a good chance he will the next time we do it. He's been incredible all season long and it's starting to look like the Clippers are going to finish with the second-best record in the Western Conference.
6. Russell Westbrook shouldn't still be this athletic
You don't see many players trying to do this stuff in their 12th season:
Russ tried to end Montrezl Harrell 😳 pic.twitter.com/K4LzYRE9bY- Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) March 6, 2020
He missed it, but still.
7. What's next?
The Rockets will be in Charlotte on Saturday for a matchup with the Hornets.
For the Clippers, they'll return to Los Angeles for a meeting with the Lakers on Sunday. Not only would they improve to 3-0 against the Lakers this season if they come up with a win, they would have defeated the Denver Nuggets, Rockets and Lakers within the last week.
That's three of the best teams in the Western Conference!
The switch has been flipped, folks.
The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.