The Houston Rockets are without Kevin Martin and Shane Battier Thursday night, but their primary offensive strategies remain constant:
- They exploit any opportunity to beat you early, before the defense can get set, even after made buckets on the other end.
- They move the ball within the confines of their corner offense until the defense is sufficiently scrambled, at which point they work you off the dribble.
In a fast-paced first quarter, the Clippers’ defense isn’t particularly adept at combating either strategy. After Rasual Butler drains a 3-pointer, the Clippers allow Aaron Brooks and Chase Budinger to streak down the floor into the gut of the lane where Brooks hits him for an easy slam (1st, 9:49). Against the Rockets’ 3-man game, the Clippers fail to communicate defensively and make it far too easy for Houston, as Kyle Lowry slips right past Butler en route to the hoop where Chuck Hayes hits him with a bounce pass from the left elbow (1st, 3:10).
On the other end of the floor, the Rockets deploy a zone against the Clippers, similar to what the Mavericks executed Tuesday night in Dallas. Though the Clippers score only 19 points on 24 possessions, they get a steady diet of good looks in the period, but just can’t hit. The Clips also establish their dominance on the glass. Drew Gooden corrals five offensive rebounds alone in the first quarter. Both of his field goals in the period are putbacks (1st, 7:50; 1st, 7:17).
Despite the comparatively open shots from the perimeter and Gooden’s work on the boards, the Clippers aren’t successful executing their inside game early. Kaman, a big man who likes to generate space on step-outs and against traditional pick-and-roll defensive schemes, can’t get into rhythm against Houston’s zone. Except for an awkward runner in transition (1st, 1:30), Baron Davis isn’t able to take advantage of a bigger Chase Budinger at the top of the defense with penetration, as Houston’s back line is ready. As previously mentioned, Gordon and Butler can’t find the basket with a GPS.
That changes in the second quarter. The Clippers begin to move the ball from side to side. We see it at the (2nd, 6:22) mark when the Clips initiate a Gordon-Craig Smith pick-and-roll on the right sideline with Kaman situated on the right block. This scheme draws the Rockets to the strong side, all the while Baron sets up along the arc in front of the Clippers’ bench with not a Rocket in proximity.
Watch how the ball beats the Houston defense to the weak side:
Then, with the crafty help of Baron, the Clips are finally able to get the ball to Kaman against the zone. Watch how the Rockets defense again shifts to the far side of the court. With Trevor Ariza now responsible for Kaman, Chris is able to seal off the small forward along the baseline. A zippy pass by Baron finds Kaman for an easy layup:
The true catalyst for the Clippers Thursday night is Craig Smith, who finishes with 25 points (10-13 FGs, 5-10 FTs) and 10 rebounds. Rhino is able to mine the soft spot in the middle of the Rockets’ zone in the second and third quarters before the Rockets adjust with a man-to-man defense.
Watch Smith flash unmanned:
The Clippers’ adjustment is admirable. But the smart pass in the last sequence from Gordon is especially encouraging for a guy whose playmaking hasn’t improved measurably in his second season.
Down the stretch, the Clippers play an inspired brand of basketball. For a team that’s been beleaguered and, at times, clueless on the defensive end of the floor, the Clippers body up. Gordon doesn’t have a statistically impressive night, but here are a couple of possessions (4th, 6:22; 4th, 4:48) where he shows his mettle — the first on the defensive end against Ariza (he gets some help from DeAndre Jordan), the second in transition:
On both ends, we see Gordon’s steady balance — both physically and emotionally. Does his expression change after he converts that bucket on the break and draws the foul? Not a bit.
The best set of the night comes at the (4th, 3:12) mark with the Clippers gradually taking control of the game, leading by five. Watch how the respective skills of Gordon and Smith commingle:
So much works about this set:
- The Clippers go to their strength: Craig Smith on the block. It ain’t predictable until the opponent can stop it.
- Baron feeds Smith the entry pass, then clears, deferring to Eric Gordon — a more potent threat from the perimeter.
- The Clips force Ariza to make a difficult choice. Does he double the irrepressible, othersized one in the mid-post or does he crowd Gordon on the perimeter?
- Ariza ultimately decides to close on Eric. Rather than shoot a contested 3-pointer, Eric puts the ball on the floor and breezes past Ariza.
- By forcing the action, Eric draws the attention of Smith’s man, Chuck Hayes, who leaves Smith to help on the drive.
- With the defense collapsing on Eric, he keeps Rhino in his sights as he drives.
- Eric then threads the needle to Smith, who now has a clear path to the rim. He seals off the baseline then goes in for the reverse layup.
I can’t recall a smarter set the Clips have run over the past six weeks, can you?
The power forwards put up the gaudy stats for the Clips, but Baron Davis plays a heady game, protects the basketball, makes some sharp passes and ices the game late with a couple of big shots. Houstonian DeAndre Jordan causes trouble in the middle and works the glass.
Beating teams on the road demands execution. It requires a recognition of your strengths and your opponent’s vulnerabilities. The Clippers achieve all those things tonight against a team that’s dominated them in recent years.