Clippers-Rockets: Are Harden And Howard Enough To Compete?


May 8, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard (12) reacts a during the first half in game three of the second round of the NBA Playoffs. at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Even though the Houston Rockets stole game two in the absence of Chris Paul, are James Harden and Dwight Howard enough for them to really challenge the Los Angeles Clippers? After three games — including two without CP3 — L.A. have used the triple double threat of Blake Griffin and 25 shocking points from Austin Rivers in game three to take a 2-1 series lead.

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It’s no surprise that the Rockets had to ride Harden all the way through the year as they secured the second seed in the Western Conference. Their season is ultimately just a declaration to the talents of The Beard. He finished second in scoring with 27.4 points per game and had more win shares (16.4) than any player in the league. And even though the Rockets’ secondary star Dwight Howard is now healthy for the playoffs, Houston still have a problem.

Of course, having two star players isn’t an issue. It’s one of the recipes to success that the Clippers use with Paul and Griffin, but the Rockets differ in one key way.

Whilst the Clippers’ offense can revolve around Paul or Blake, the Rockets’ hinges on the performance of Harden.

In game two at home, Houston tallied up a franchise playoff record 64 free throws (they made 42), Harden dropped 32 points and Howard added 24. Yet they still only beat the CP3-less Clippers by just six points.

The Rockets have an incredibly talented squad, and the likes of Trevor Ariza, Jason Terry, Terrence Jones and Josh Smith (when he stops shooting threes), should not be overlooked. However, despite Howard’s ability to stuff the stat sheet, Houston’s offense is limited if Harden can’t overcome his opponents.

May 6, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) drives to the basket during the first quarter as Los Angeles Clippers guard J.J. Redick (4) defends in game two of the second round of the NBA Playoffs at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

This season, through his own scoring and assists, Harden was responsible for 44.5 points per game. That equates to 42.8 percent of the Rockets’ entire offense. It speaks volumes about his abilities as a scorer and facilitator, yet it’s also an astonishingly large void to fill if he doesn’t perform on any given night. Chris Paul may be very similar (he accounts for 40.2 percent of his offense), but what separates the Clippers here is that they can operate through Griffin as well.

Unlike Houston, L.A.’s offense doesn’t hinge on the talents of one player alone.

If you take Harden away from the Rockets, you take away the only player who can create his own baskets and set up teammates to do the same. This season, when he was on the bench, their offensive rating was only 96.6 in comparison to 110.6 when he’s in the game.

That difference (-14 points per 100 possessions) has been just as bad during the playoffs this year, too. And despite Howard’s 17.9 points per game this postseason, the decline of the Rockets’ offensive rating when Harden’s off the floor is still -14.1.

On the other hand, the Clippers have faced a minimal difference when Paul hasn’t been in the game during the playoffs so far.

With him, their offensive rating has been 110.7. Without him, it drops by a mere 2.6 points to 108.1.

It’s says an awful lot about how well Griffin can run the Clippers’ offense in Paul’s absence, and just how much guys like J.J. Redick and Rivers have stepped up. With the two guards putting on their own shooting clinic without much support from Paul in game three, as they combined for 56 points on 21-of-27 shooting.

And with the likes of Rivers, Redick and Jamal Crawford all playing big minutes in game three — whilst Paul was limited to 23 — the Clippers led by at least 16 points while any on them were on the floor.

So even though the Clippers can’t beat the Rockets by 25 points every night, this does at least show that their bench has fared well in this series.

When you look at the Rockets, though, it’s clear they’re limited offensively when you go beyond Harden. They may have solid role players like Terry, Smith and Corey Brewer, but without The Beard they have no strong options to run their offense.

As other than Harden, no Rocket averaged more than 3.4 assists per game this year. And that was their starting point guard, Patrick Beverley.

Even Beverley (their second best option) is by no means close to being a “pure” point guard, and now that he’s injured for the playoffs, the pressure on the shoulders of Harden just got a little heavier. Especially as other than some alley-oops and very short range hook shots, Dwight can’t be relied on as an offensive threat.

And whilst Howard may be averaging 3.3 blocks and 13.6 rebounds during the playoffs, he can’t stop the Clippers by himself.

May 8, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard (12) controls the ball against the defense of Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan (6) during the first half in game three of the second round of the NBA Playoffs. at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Now that Redick has shown he knows how to defend Harden, by keeping him off the line (Harden attempted just five free throws in game three), the Rockets’ offense may struggle to keep up. Particularly as the Clippers have scored an average of 116.7 points per game this series, compared to Houston’s 105.

And with Paul easing back into the rotation, L.A. can return to full strength. They ranked 1st in offensive rating this year with 109.8 points per 100 possessions, whilst the Rockets only ranked 12th.

The Clippers achieved this kind of performance through two offensive leaders — Paul and Griffin. Now the playoffs have arrived, they’ve proved just how well they can play with only the latter being active.

If they continue to hold Harden off the free throw line and not surrender easy points, the chances that The Beard and Dwight have of overcoming the Clippers could rapidly diminish.

Next: Can Clippers Limit Chris Paul's Minutes Again In Game 4?