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Preview: Rockets at Clippers

Setting the scene for Houston's showdown with the Los Angeles Clippers

LOS ANGELES - Setting the scene for Houston’s matchup with the Los Angeles Clippers:

The Basics:

Houston Rockets (39-18) at Los Angeles Clippers (39-20)

Point Differential:

LA Clippers: +6.0 (NBA rank: 3rd)

Houston: +4.7 (NBA rank: 7th)

Offensive Rating (points per 100 possessions):

LA Clippers: 109.1 (2nd)

Houston: 108.1 (5th)

Defensive Rating (points allowed per 100 possessions):

LA Clippers: 102.6 (12th)

Houston: 102.1 (9th)

Pace (number of possessions per 48 minutes):

LA Clippers: 98.04 (8th)

Houston: 98.36 (7th)

Four Factors:

Shooting – Effective field goal percentage (eFG% is a field goal percentage that’s adjusted for made 3-pointers being 1.5 times more valuable than a 2-point shot):

LA Clippers: 52.3% (5th)

Houston: 53.3% (3rd)

Turnovers – Turnover ratio (the number of turnovers a team averages per 100 possessions):

LA Clippers: 14.1 (T-5th)

Houston: 16.7 (T-30th)

Rebounding – Rebound percentage (the percentage of total rebounds obtained)

LA Clippers: 49.4% (19th); offensive rebound rate: 24.7% (22nd); defensive rebound rate: 72.6% (27th)

Houston: 52.1% (4th); offensive rebound rate: 27.5% (T-10th); defensive rebound rate: 73.5% (22nd)

Free Throws – Free throw rate (the rate at which a team goes to the line relative to the number of field goals it attempts):

LA Clippers: .368 (2nd)

Houston: .394 (1st)

The NBA’s regular season is frequently referred to as a grueling, grind of a marathon. That’s a rather fair description, by the way; the toll it exacts on both a mental and physical level is very real. Without the proper training and mindset, it will break you down, beat you to a pulp, and leave you staggering toward the finish line.

My preferred perspective of the annual 82-game campaign, however, is that of a series of mini tests that must be passed in order to advance to the league’s higher levels. One night might be a pop quiz on overcoming adversity; the next could bring you face to face with an exam centered upon taking care of business against an inferior opponent.

With that in mind, there’s little mystery surround the subject matter the Rockets will be asked to master tonight. Today’s test against the Clippers asks a very simple question: Just how much have you grown as a team since a pair of November meetings with the Clips, back when this particular Houston squad was still very much in an embryonic stage of its development?

Neither of those matchups was particularly kind to the Rockets as they suffered double-digit defeats in both. During the initial meeting, Dwight Howard found himself in early foul trouble, J.J. Redick and Chris Paul went bananas in the first quarter, and the Clippers dropped 78 points in the first half on their way to a 137-118 win. Less than a week later, Houston started strong but lost the plot when Pat Beverley got saddled with foul problems of his own, allowing L.A. to run away and hide once again, this time by outscoring the Rockets by 22 points in the second half.

Turnovers have been a bugaboo for Houston all season, and they proved positively deadly against the Clippers, as Los Angeles rang up 27 points off of the Rockets’ miscues in both matchups. And to be perfectly blunt, the Clips have had Houston’s number ever since CP3 arrived in the city of angels and Lob City was formed: since Paul put on a Clippers jersey, his team owns a 7-1 record against the Rockets.

But this is most definitely a different Houston team now. It’s a far more confident bunch, especially in the wake of having won 10 of its last 11 games, and it has a much better grasp of the identity it must assume in order to maximize the immense potential of its impressive collection of talent.

And let’s not forget that the Clippers are different, too, in ways both good and bad. Blake Griffin has grown in every aspect of his game, DeAndre Jordan has blossomed under Doc Rivers’ watchful eye, and Jamal Crawford has taken his typically combustible scoring touch to even more incendiary levels. The addition of Glen “Big Baby” Davis could potentially have a profound effect on this club as well. But more certain is the fact that the indefinite timetable for the injured Redick’s return casts a cloud of concern over everything the Clippers hope to accomplish this season. He’s a big piece of their puzzle; something the Rockets know all too well after he torched them twice in their November meetings.

All that having been said, no, tonight’s contest does not represent anything close to a final exam for either team. Both clubs came into the season harboring title aspirations and each is savvy enough to recognize there will be no trophy presentation at the end of this evening. And though the Rockets’ players and coaches won’t entertain it as an excuse, there’s no denying the fact that playing the Clips on the second night of a back-to-back at the end of a five-game road trip isn’t exactly a fight fought under the fairest of circumstances. But hey, that’s life in the NBA for you. Love it or leave it.

Think of this, then, as a midterm of sorts. Tonight’s contest offers Houston an opportunity to show its continuing comfort level with the current curriculum; it’s not going to make or break their final grade, but acing this exam would certainly portend positively toward their ability to handle the more important tests yet to come.

Know Thy Enemy

- You’d be hard pressed to put together a matchup that features more players who have managed to transform the month of February into their own personal playground. James Harden and Dwight Howard have both made powerful pushes for Player of the Month honors of course, and the Clippers’ Blake Griffin and Jamal Crawford absolutely belong in that conversation as well.

Griffin has been nothing short of extraordinary throughout 2014 and his February numbers are quite simply off the charts: 30.7 points, 10.2 rebounds, 3.9 assists per game while shooting nearly 56 percent from the field. Crawford, meanwhile, is playing the best basketball of his career as well. The 14-year pro is producing more than 25 points and four assists per game this month while hitting better than 41 percent from beyond the arc. He still takes a ton of shots that make you shake your head on occasion, but he makes them with such frequency that it’s increasingly difficult to describe them as ‘bad,’ especially given the remarkable roll he’s currently on.

- Speaking of Crawford, with Redick on the shelf, the 2010 Sixth Man of the Year award winner is no longer coming off the bench these days. Instead, he’s an integral part of a starting five that has ripped opponents to shreds during the 192 minutes it’s played together thus far. In that time, the Clippers’ quintet of Crawford, Paul, Matt Barnes, Griffin and Jordan have rolled up an offensive rating of 118.9 and an overall net rating of +18.2. The sample size is still smallish, but those numbers command attention.

- If the message wasn’t made clear during the intro, allow me to hammer the point home once more in this space: Houston simply must avoid live-ball turnovers at all costs. The Clippers rank in the league’s top-five in pace-adjusted points off turnovers, and are surely dueling back and forth with Miami for the top spot in terms of posters created via those opportunities.

- You’re never going to believe this, but a Chris Paul-led team boasts the NBA’s most efficient pick-and-roll and isolation offense, according to Synergy Sports. The Clippers also rank third in both transition and post-up scoring efficiency – the latter in large part due to Griffin’s burgeoning skill set from both blocks, though his numbers are a bit better from the right side than the left.

- On the defensive end of the floor, the Clippers defend very well against spot-ups – only the Suns have limited opposing 3-point shooters to a lower hit rate than has Los Angeles – and pick-and-roll ball-handler scoring opportunities. But with movement and the right reads, those pick-and-rolls can still find plenty of joy. The Clippers are very vulnerable to cuts and rolling bigs – Synergy ranks them 29th in the league in terms of points per possessions allowed to screen-and-roll big men – so Harden and the rest of the Rockets’ perimeter playmakers will have ample opportunities to use Jordan’s aggressiveness against him and to exploit the lack of rim protection left in his wake when he gets out of position or prematurely leaves his feet.

- Related to the latter part of that last bullet point: the Clippers reside in the league’s bottom-five in terms of opponent field goal percentage from the restricted area, and their poor defensive rebounding leaves them very susceptible to second chance scoring opportunities along the interior.

- Given both clubs’ dynamic personnel, it should come as no surprise to find out both of these teams are fantastic when finishing around the rim. The Clippers stand second overall in that category; Houston is fifth.

- The Clips love those precious corner 3s. Los Angeles is second in the NBA in corner 3s taken per game (7.3). Houston, however, has defended the attempts from that precious piece of real estate very well this season; only Oklahoma City has held opponents to a lower field goal percentage from the corners than have the Rockets.

In the spotlight

While a great deal of attention figures to (rightfully) be lavished upon the stars and big names tonight, look for one or two of the Rockets’ supporting cast members to loom large should Houston spring the upset. Chandler Parsons has shown a knack for raising his game when the lights are brightest, and the aforementioned Pat Beverley will be absolutely crucial in Houston’s attempts to keep Chris Paul under control. Beverley had 19 points, five boards, four steals and two blocks the last time these two teams faced off, but CP3 is a master at drawing fouls, meaning the Rockets’ starting point guard is going to have to expertly toe the line between positive aggression and overdoing it while chasing the captain of the Clippers’ ship.

Injury Update

Greg Smith (knee) is out.

All stats courtesy of NBA.com except where otherwise noted.