The first offensive decision the Clippers make against Houston after the opening jump is to send Baron Davis low against Aaron Brooks on the left block. The spacing is beautiful and so is the motion and timing that follows. Al Thornton cuts through to the right side, which leaves Baron in isolation against Brooks. As that’s happening, Chris Kaman slips behind Chuck Hayes along the baseline, to collect a pass beneath the hoop from Baron. Given Baron’s advantage over Brooks and Kaman’s initial position way out on the weak side wing, Hayes is being mindful of Baron. The Clippers exploit it with the Kaman cut. It’s the sort of fluid offense they demonstrated during Kaman’s string of prolific games in early November.
For the most part, the Clippers execute their offensive game plan against Houston in the first half. They work themselves 18 shots in the painted area, using Baron and Kaman inside, with Al Thornton working off the dribble to get to the rack. Not one Clipper shoots below 50 percent in the first half. And they brutalize the Rockets on the boards — particularly the offensive glass where the Clippers go 5-for-5 on second chance points.
Rick Adelman makes a fascinating adjustment in the second half. He assigns Shane Battier — who spent the first half guarding Rasual Butler — to guard Baron Davis, and switches the diminutive Aaron Brooks onto the 6-7 Butler. Even though there’s nothing remotely postal about Butler’s game, the mismatch is too delicious to resist. The Clippers send the ball into Butler on repeated possessions in the opening half of the third quarter. Butler picks up a couple of field goals, but the more profound effect of the cross-match is a disruption of the Clippers’ inside game. With a longer, more cerebral defender on him, Baron isn’t able to penetrate, and simple entry passes into anyone other than Butler become more difficult.
After falling behind by nine midway through the period, the Clips reverse course. They go to Al Thornton out on the wing in isolation against Trevor Ariza, and Al has moderate success. The Clippers ultimately claw back toward the end of the third on the strength of their defense. Deflections and forced turnovers earn the Clippers a few trips to the line. They ultimately pull within a single point when they defend a Houston corner set to perfection, resulting in a Thornton outlet pass to Baron Davis on a run-out for a rare slam.
In the fourth, the Clippers settle for an atrocious series of bad jump shots, despite their success going inside in the first half. There’s a dismal stretch in the middle of the fourth during which the Clips cooperate with every Houston defensive decision. Kyle Lowry lures Baron Davis into an off-the-dribble 25-footer by running underneath the Kaman screen (4th, 6:05). On the next possession Al Thornton, who had success in the first half driving to the hole, settles for consecutive long jumpers — the first contested (4th, 5:24), the second wildly off-balanced (4th, 5:07). This lack of selectivity continues until the Clippers have shot themselves out of the game.
The most pivotal factor in the Clippers loss — aside from the absence of Eric Gordon — can be found behind Houston’s 3-point line. Despite entering the game as one of the league’s best teams at defending the long ball, the Clippers yield a dozen 3-pointers to Houston on the night.
We’ll lay it out visually in our next post.