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Rockets ready for next challenge: Clippers on a high

Series Preview: Rockets vs. Clippers

POSTED: May 3, 2015 12:20 PM ET

By Fran Blinebury

BY Fran Blinebury

NBA.com

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— At this point you wouldn't exactly blame the Rockets if they thought this was track and field and they were caught in an endless loop of running the hurdles.

The season began and power forward Terrence Jones quickly went to the sidelines with a nerve injury to his foot that forced him out for half the schedule and even threatened his career.

Center Dwight Howard missed a few games in November with swelling in his right knee and then went on the shelf for six weeks in mid-February when the pain and edema returned.

Just when it appeared that things were getting back to normal, starting point guard Pat Beverley suffered torn wrist ligaments that finished his season. Then forward Donatas Motiejunas, who had filled in admirably for Jones and become a key part of the rotation, was lost and underwent back surgery.

So now that the Rockets have finished off the Mavericks in the opening round for the franchise's first playoff series win since 2009, here comes maybe the biggest hurdle yet: the team that took down defending NBA champion Spurs.

"I think we are becoming tougher mentally," said veteran guard Jason Terry, who has moved into the starting lineup. "Physically, to a man, we're a tough bunch of guys. But mentally is where you have to grow. Because we're a new group, we haven't experienced much.

"This next round is going to show how far we've come mentally. There's going to be some more tests. But the makeup of this team, the veteran leadership -- when we face adversity, we'll be able to push through it and continue to do the things we do well."

The Rockets have come to take on and enjoy the personality of coach Kevin McHale, who talks constantly about the NBA being a grind and there are no excuses and no reasons for sympathy. He doesn't appeal to the emotion of his players, but to their sense of professionalism.

"It's not always pretty, and it's not always perfect," McHale said. "If you want to win championships, you've got to like it when it gets dirty and nasty, because that's the way it gets a lot of times. A lot of times, it becomes a fistfight game. Playing in a lot of them, the rim doesn't get bigger in Game 7. It gets smaller. It tightens up.

"You've just got to enjoy the grind. You've got to enjoy a dirty, nasty, knock-down brawl. Everything wasn't perfect, but you just have to find a way to win."

It certainly helps to have one of the game's best closers in James Harden to put the ball into his hands when games get late and situations get tight. But according to center Dwight Howard, they have also come to relish having to clear all those hurdles.

"We don't want anything to be given to us," Howard said. "To win a championship is not going to be easy. You're going to have a lot bumps in the road, different trials throughout the season just to test the character of your team."

Howard has his wish. Fresh off dethroning the champs, the Clippers will come bearing no gifts.

Inside The NBA: Rockets-Clippers Preview

Shaq, Kenny, and Nate Robinson preview the second round matchup between the Rockets and the Clippers.

Five quick questions (and answers)

1. Hack-A-Truce? With the bricklaying DeAndre Jordan on the Clippers' side and the errant foursome of Howard, Josh Smith, Clint Capela and Joey Dorsey bending rims for the Rockets, it is not likely that coaches Doc Rivers and Kevin McHale will employ the intentional foul as a strategy. Think of it as the old U.S.A. vs. U.S.S.R. Cold War philosophy of mutual destruction as a deterrent.

2. How far can Dwight Howard push it? By the last four games of the first-round win over the Mavericks, coach Kevin McHale was pretty much able to take the shackles off of Howard in terms of minutes, using him up to 38 minutes. So far there has been no sign of the pain or swelling returning to the right knee that forced the starting center out of the lineup for six weeks in February and March, and the Rockets will likely need all of his low-post presence Howard can deliver against the Clippers.

3. Do the Clippers get a bounce? After all the misfortune, the misplays, the inability to close past deals and advance deep into the playoffs, the win over the Spurs could free Chris Paul and Blake Griffin from the ghosts of Clippers past and take their game and their team to the next level.

4. Can Harden be handled? Until he erupted for 34 points in the last meeting between the teams this season, the Clippers had done as good a job as any team in the league keeping a lid on the MVP candidate. He averaged just 14.3 points in the first three meetings, more than a dozen points below his number for the entire league. Everyone tries to stop him from getting to the basket to finish, drawing fouls and nailing the step-back jumper. The Clippers just have more success with the multiple looks they send in Harden's direction. And it doesn't hurt to have DeAndre Jordan protecting the rim.

5. Who dials up long distance? The 3-point shot is a key part of the offenses of both teams and the one that can force the other off the line and not get hurt too much by the home-run ball will have a decided advantage and a leg up in the series. But truth be told, the Rockets need those 3s to fall much more.

When the Rockets have the ball ...

They will push the ball off misses and live-ball turnovers. No team has attempted more shots in the first six seconds of the shot clock in the postseason. In half-court situations, James Harden will run the show, looking to get into the paint and to the line or find his teammates beyond the arc.

Harden vs. the team that ranked 29th in opponent free throw rate doesn't seem like a fair fight. But the Clippers' aggressive defense on pick-and-rolls will force him to give up the ball at times. If the Rockets can move it faster than the defense rotates, there will be open 3s for the Houston wings. Trevor Ariza led the league in corner 3-pointers for the second straight season.

Dwight Howard will get his share of post-ups, but he's much more effective in the pick-and-roll. The L.A. defense looked sharper against San Antonio than it did for most of the regular season, but can still be exploited, especially if Paul isn't moving well.

When the Clippers have the ball ...

They have had the most efficient offense each of the last two seasons. If Paul is healthy, it's his show. But Blake Griffin finishes more plays (via shots, assists or turnovers) than Paul does. He's one of the best passing big men in the league, but his mid-range shot will be tested in this series with Howard protecting the rim.

The three-time Defensive Player of the Year won't venture far from the basket, which will give Paul plenty of shots off the pick-and-roll, and only Stephen Curry is better in that regard. Even with Howard missing half the season, the Rockets ranked sixth defensively, leading the league in opponent 3-point percentage. Trevor Ariza is a good perimeter defender who could be asked to defend Paul at times.

In the clutch ...

The Rockets' offense gets even more Harden-heavy down the stretch of close games. In the regular season and first round combined, he has shot an incredible 14-for-26 from 3-point range with the score within five in the last five minutes, and 11 of those 14 3s were unassisted. He's also assisted on 13 of the Rockets' other 22 clutch 3s.

A Paul/Griffin pick-and-roll is the Clippers' go-to play, and with Paul a threat to shoot or pass, there's no easy way to defend it. The league's No. 1 offense shot pretty poorly in clutch situations in the regular season, but obviously got the job done in Game 7 against the Spurs. J.J. Redick was 5-for-7 on clutch 3s in the first round.

Wild cards

When Trevor Ariza is filling it up from behind the 3-point line and Corey Brewer is coming off the bench to force the action at both ends of the court, the Rockets are a difficult cover and tough to beat.

The two-time Sixth Man of the Year struggled to find his rhythm and his offense in the first round win over the Spurs. But Jamal Crawford averaged 21.7 points in three games he played against the Rockets this season.

Prediction

The Clippers have had as much success as anybody in not letting Harden run wild and he's the key to everything that makes the Rockets go. In an offensive battle, assuming Paul is fit and able to go the distance, that's the difference.

Clippers in 6.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.