The LA Clippers visit the Houston Rockets for the fourth and final time this regular season. Can they keep up with the small-ball Rockets and tie the season series?
After some morale-boosting wins against the Denver Nuggets and OKC Thunder, as well as a shorthanded Sixers team, the LA Clippers suddenly find themselves in the midst of a five-game win streak- the longest current in the league, and enough for a one-game cushion on second place in the Western Conference. The team is having it’s the best and longest stretch of health all year and playing their best basketball yet. The continuity and full roster have helped LA looked locked-in and focused for the final stretch of the season. The matchup against Houston could be one of the biggest tests they’ve had yet.
The season series between the two conference rivals is currently at 2-1 with the Rockets holding the advantage. Both teams have changed their rosters, and in some sense, their systems since they last met in December. The Rockets added Robert Covington, perhaps the most sought after player at the trade deadline, and completely ditched the idea of a traditional big frontcourt with their tallest rotation player capping out at 6’8″.
Teams have struggled to compete with the 5-man-out system the Rockets have been running. If any team in the league is built to keep up with such an offense it has to be the Clippers. LA has a ton of depth and can easily match Houston’s starting lineup with Patrick Beverley, Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Marcus Morris Sr., and JaMychal Green. Those five players all have the ability to guard multiple positions while still providing suffocating length and stretch the floor on the other end.
In the three previous matchups this year the two Clippers that have arguably struggled the most against Houston have been Maurice Harkless and Ivica Zubac. Harkless was traded at the deadline for Marcus Morris Sr.- who is due for a big shooting game, but is overall a better scorer than Harkless and has been playing very well in his role for the Clippers. Zu has also had a tough time against the Rockets this year, but mostly at the hands of Clint Capela– a known Clippers killer- whom the Rockets traded away at the deadline.
The subtraction of Capela in Houston might be the biggest argument to not meet the Rockets with a five-man-out-small-ball lineup. Zubac should still see the start in this matchup. With the lack of size inside Zu could really do damage in the paint offensively. Houston is full of capable defenders, but being seven feet tall is a huge advantage.
The biggest concern with Zu in this game would be defensively and his ability to stay in front of much smaller, faster opponents. The answer to that might be as simple as leaving Westbrook open. That might sound crazy at first, but Westbrook is a historically bad three-point shooter, so ignoring him on the perimeter and keeping Zu down on the block to communicate screens and keeping an eye on backdoor cuts might just disrupt what Houston has been doing so well lately.
The battle of the benches will be an interesting one as Houston typically only runs a nine-man rotation compared to the Clippers’ ten to twelve-man rotation. The Clippers have one of, if not the, deepest benches in the league. The addition of Reggie Jackson has paid off nicely with him taking a lot off Lou Williams‘ plate in the facilitator role. Jackson has allowed Williams to move freely off the ball to his spots and is starting to come back to form as an efficient reserve scorer that has won him three Sixth Man of the Year awards.
As two of the hottest teams faceoff, there is a lot to prove for both. Houston is hoping to take the 3-1 series record and prove themselves to be a legit contender, while LA will have their depth and recent streak be put on the line. Both coaching staffs will have their hands full ahead of Thursday’s tip.