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Size matters: Clippers neutralize Rockets' small-ball system

L.A. used its depth and stuck to its gameplan to short circuit Houston in a romp

HOUSTON — Houston Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni gestured with his hands in a rolling motion to find the words to adequately describe the 120-105 thumping his team suffered to the LA Clippers.

“A whole barrel of bad stuff,” he said.

The small-ball revolution in Houston was nationally televised Thursday night on TNT, with the home team absorbing its largest home loss of the season in part because its go-to 3-point shooting wilted under the length and strength of a deep Clippers roster that knew it needed to play big to prosper.

“Listen, what they do is smart for what they do,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “But we couldn’t get caught in trying to play that way, and I thought we didn’t. Going into the game we were telling them, ‘You have to play big tonight. You can’t be small.’”

That philosophy coupled with stellar depth paid dividends in helping the Clippers capture their 6th consecutive victory in a contest pitting a pair of Western Conference title contenders. On the other side, the lopsided loss taken by the Rockets did little to deter their resolve to continue playing small.

Houston shot just 7 of 42 from 3-point range after averaging 18 made 3-pointers in the previous 13 games, when the Rockets elected to play small exclusively. The 16.7% 3-point performance registered as the fourth-lowest in NBA history by a team with at least 40 attempts. It also marked just the second time this season Houston knocked down fewer than 10 attempts from deep.

Those misses fueled a Clippers feast in transition.

“They got back,” said Russell Westbrook, who scored a game-high 29 points on 11-of-27 shooting after averaging 33.6 points on 56.3% shooting in his previous eight outings. “That was part of the game plan. They got back. Some of their strength is on the glass. I think they decided it wasn’t more important than us getting out in transition, and they got back for the most part.”

Through the first 3 quarters, LA owned a 20-8 advantage in fast-break points.

“That was big for us,” Rivers said. “One of the things going into the game, we thought with our size if we could rebound, we had to run. We told our bigs. That’s why [Ivica Zubac] and [Montrezl Harrell], we kept bringing them out because we told them that if they just run straight down the middle of the floor, they would create a matchup. And they kept doing that. You’ve got to get the rebound first. Then once we got it, we really pushed the break. I thought that was huge for us.”

Houston’s shooting woes proved to be bigger.

The Rockets opened the contest hitting 2 of 12 from 3-point range. Trailing by seven points with 1:30 left in the opening quarter, Jeff Green drained a 24-footer to make it 27-23. Houston wouldn’t hit another shot from deep until 1:57 remained in the third quarter.

The Rockets missed 20 consecutive 3-pointers and trailed by as many as 30 points throughout the night.

“We just didn’t do what we were supposed to do on both ends of the floor,” said James Harden, who finished with 16 points and was 0-for-8 on 3-pointers. “They made some tough shots, but they’re a good team. Offensively, we just didn’t have any rhythm. They made us play in the half court because we didn’t get any stops. So, chalk it up as a learning lesson, and we just have to bounce back.”

The Clippers are 10-0 this season when they come into a injury-free and are 23-7 when both Kawhi Leonard (25 points on Thursday) and Paul George (13 points) are in the lineup.

Going into the game we were telling them, ‘You have to play big tonight. You can’t be small.’ “

Clippers coach Doc Rivers

The Clippers reserves, meanwhile, outscored Houston’s 49-40, marking the 15th straight game L.A.’s reserves have outscored opposing benches. That depth stood out early as Rivers utilized 10 different players in the 1st quarter alone.

George pointed to the team’s overall competitiveness in explaining Thursday’s outcome.

“This team is so versatile, so competitive,” George said. “That’s the biggest thing you can take away [from this game] is how competitive we are.”

The world will see it on display again Sunday as another national TV game — this time against the Los Angeles Lakers — looms (3:30 ET, ABC).

As for Houston, it’s too late now to turn its back on playing small as the season series with the Clippers finished tied 2-2.

“Now, we know where we’ve got to go, and we’ll respond,” D’Antoni said. “It won’t break us, but this will make us. I’ll have to look at the tape a little bit, and then figure [it] out. But most of the stuff, that’s what we do. Most of the times it’s good. Tonight, was really bad. It’s not the end of the world. It’s not going to end today. We’ll be back and guys will regather. We’ve got a great group. I’ve got to find out a little bit about the rotations and stuff. I’ve got to figure a few things out, and we will.”

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Michael C. Wright is a senior writer for You can e-mail him here , find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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