The LA Clippers are entering the Orlando bubble as a top three favorite to win the NBA championship, along with the Los Angeles Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks. At 44-20, the Clippers were the second best team in the Western Conference, by record, prior to the NBA’s hiatus. However, there is a team that could cause the Clippers some trouble and ultimately upset them. To me, that team is the Houston Rockets.
The biggest contributing factors to my picking the Rockets here is the fact that they were still working on their newly-constructed offense before the NBA’s hiatus, they’ve got an offensive mastermind in Mike D’Antoni, and two of the best offensive players of this era in James Harden and Russell Westbrook. Nobody really knows how good they can be yet.
In the only matchup between both teams with their new and healthy rosters, the Clippers obliterated the Rockets by a score of 120-105, and led by as many as 30 points in Houston. Harden struggled all night finishing with just 16 points on 4-of-17 from the field, 0-of-8 from beyond the arc.
Before that, the Rockets beat the Clippers two-of-three times, with all three being incredibly thrilling contests from start to finish. Aside from having the 2018 MVP, the Rockets’ biggest advantage over the Clippers this year, and in years past, was Clint Capela.
Over the last three seasons, Capela has tormented the Clippers, averaging 17.9 points, 12.9 rebounds, 2.1 blocks per game while finishing top two in net rating behind James Harden. Capela’s length and defensive versatility was a problem for L.A., especially in lineups they used Montrezl Harrell more, but all that’s a thing of the past.
Houston traded away Capela at the trade deadline this season to fully embrace their five-out, small-ball lineup. It was a heavily criticized move at the time, but also a decision that deserved major props based the risks alone. About Prior to the hiatus, the Rockets were starting P.J. Tucker at the center position, and while they won a handful of games as continued to figure things out, they also had some horrific showings.
In a game in early March, Houston lost to the New York Knicks after being out-rebounded 65-34. Julius Randle, Mitchell Robinson, and Taj Gibson combined to out-rebound the entire Houston team.
That was the first game of a four-game losing streak for the Rockets, which includes the 120-105 loss to the Clippers. In that game, Houston was out-rebounded 57-51, but only made 7-of-42 three-point attempts. Not coincidentally, Ivica Zubac had arguably his best game of the year, finishing with a season-high 17 points (14 in the first half), 12 rebounds, and a block on 6-of-6 shooting.
If the Rockets do play Zubac off the floor by making shots from beyond the arc, the Clippers can roll out non-traditional lineups and run Marcus Morris at the five. A lineup featuring Patrick Beverley, Landry Shamet, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and Marcus Morris would certainly be able to go toe-to-toe with a Rockets’ lineup featuring Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Danuel House Jr., Robert Covington, and P.J. Tucker.
Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned the leading bench scoring duo in the NBA the last three seasons in Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell, who will surely be fresh and ready to carry the scoring load if necessary. The Rockets no longer have the answer to stopping Harrell down low. Meanwhile, the addition of Reggie Jackson made Williams a far more efficient scorer in their brief time together.
Point being, the Rockets are going to heavily rely on the three-point shooting of their role players. Since Capela’s last game as a Rocket, Harden and Westbrook are both averaging 31 points per game. More often than not, that duo is going to get their staggering numbers. It’ll be on Covington, Tucker, Eric Gordon, Jeff Green, and the other Rockets role players to make shots.
In a matchup against the Clippers, even that might not be enough to overcome Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and the tough-minded LA group.