It’s been said that the NBA season doesn’t really begin until Christmas of each year. Before that point, teams are still getting used to working with new members and new coaching staff acquired in the off season. Well, we are officially into the New Year and it’s go time for all teams in the league as we approach the playoffs.
In the Western Conference the Warriors rank #1 followed closely by the Spurs at #2. The Houston Rockets come in at #3 with the Clippers falling to 4th place amidst injuries to key players. We will save the debate for who will ultimately rank 1st in the West for later, but for now let’s take a look at a possible playoffs matchup between the Rockets and the Clippers as either could pose a threat to the #1 or #2 seed as the season progresses.
Now, before we begin I’ll put it out on the table that I’m no particular fan of James Harden. He’s recently—finally—begun to play defense which I will give him credit for, but why only now after so many years in the NBA? Seems to me that an MVP candidate would need to have all pieces to be considered for such a coveted role, but I digress.
The Houston Rockets are performing at a very high level this season. They’ve always been strong offensively, but they’re also doing a great job at moving the ball and playing good defense. They rank third in the league in average points per game at 118 and also third in the league for assists at 27. They’re also particularly efficient at shooting with a collective average field goal percentage of 47.7%. Another interesting statistic is that the Rockets bring in the highest number of their points from 3 point shots in the league—we will discuss the ramifications of this later. The moral of the story here is that Houston is undeniably a strong and formidable opponent for any team to face.
Now, let’s talk about the Clippers. The Los Angeles Clippers started off the season on fire this year. They were amazing during the first two weeks of the season—attributing much of their success to lock down defense. Unfortunately, one of their star players Blake Griffin suffered a knee injury, and underwent surgery on December 19th with an estimated absence of 3-6 weeks. Starting guard Chris Paul also injured his hamstring and has spent several games on the bench. The result is that the Clippers have limped along, quite literally, the last few games and haven’t performed as well as they did earlier this season. However, both Griffin and Paul promise a return before the season is over and the team is still performing adequately in their absence. As a whole, the Clippers average about 108 points, and 22 assists per game. However, the Clippers main strengths lie in their defensive prowess. It’s been said that offense sells tickets and defense wins championships. The Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan ranks second in the league for rebounds while Chris Paul takes second for steals giving them two of the best defenders in the league.
Looking at the stats the conclusive winner between the Rockets and the Clippers is obviously the Rockets. However, the playoffs are a different beast altogether. Two teams playing each other for at least four games in a row can bring some interesting conclusions. In a playoffs series between the Rockets and the Clippers, I believe the Clippers take it. Here’s why:
The Rockets are an offensive juggernaut. They put on a show for their fans each game running the ball through Harden almost every play. Harden leads the league in assists and averages in double figure assists per game. As I mentioned before the Rockets also bring in most of their points from the three point line which can be devastating for an opponent should they get hot. However, I believe these two things are simultaneously their strength and their Achilles’ heel at the same time. The Clippers’ defense is one of the strongest in the league, and it’s inevitable that they will figure out a way to shut Harden’s offensive facilitation down. This will likely frazzle the offense causing them to take quick, poorly calculated shots from the three point line that don’t fall much like we saw from Golden State against OKC last season. Sure, in a one game matchup is easy to catch an opponent by surprise, but playing one team multiple games in a row will lend itself to the Rockets needing to come up with a plan B. Shutting Harden down means shutting down ball movement, and crippling the Rockets’ offense.
Meanwhile, the Clippers will be able to utilize their offensive versatility if the Rockets newly formed defense proves a problem. Chris Paul is lights out from the 3 point line while DeAndre Jordan leads the league in field goal percentage. Don’t forget players like Blake Griffin and Jamal Crawford that pose serious threat under the rim and from distance, respectively. The Clippers defense is years in the making. These players have been playing together for a very long time, and their defense has elevated to another level this season. With all players healthy the Clippers are a sure bet against the Rockets any day.
The Clippers are anxious to get Blake Griffin back and healthy as soon as possible. He will certainly be back before the end of the season, but he will need some time to get his rhythm once again. With nearly four months left in the regular season, it’s safe to bet we can expect to see him healthy and ready to get to work in the playoffs. It would certainly be fun to see the Rockets and the Clippers face off on the post season.