After edging the five-time NBA champion San Antonio Spurs in the first round, the Clippers have advanced to face a team with a lesser recent playoff pedigree than themselves.
The Houston Rockets have won two playoff series since 1997, one fewer than the Clippers have won since Chris Paul arrived in December 2011.
It’s true that Rockets guard Jason Terry won a championship with the Dallas Mavericks in 2011 and stars James Harden and Dwight Howard each advanced to the Finals with other teams, but the group has done little collectively besides getting past the Mavericks in a relatively breezy first-round series this season.
The Rockets and Clippers each won 56 games in the regular season, finishing tied for the league’s third-best record. The Rockets were awarded the second seeding in the Western Conference and the accompanying homecourt advantage in this conference semifinal series against the third-seeded Clippers by virtue of winning the Southwest Division.
The Clippers have dominated Houston in recent seasons, winning 11 of the last 14 games. But the Rockets won the final two games between the teams this season and Howard did not play in any of the four games in the series this season.
“Obviously, they have a good thing going,” Clippers forward Blake Griffin said. “James has had an unbelievable year, Dwight had a huge series against Dallas and really all the way down the line. They’re a great team.”
Here’s a closer look at the Clippers-Rockets matchup:
Guards: Paul and J.J. Redick versus Terry and Harden. Paul’s strained left hamstring will be one of the biggest story lines of the series after he willed the Clippers past the Spurs on essentially one leg in Game 7. Redick had an uneven first round but will no longer have to contend with San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard chasing him around the court. Harden scored 30 points or more 35 times during the regular season and has vastly improved as a defender. Terry, a replacement at point guard for the injured Patrick Beverley, is also dealing with hamstring issues but said he would be fine. Edge: Even.
Forwards: Griffin and Matt Barnes versus Terrence Jones and Trevor Ariza. Griffin is coming off a series in which he recorded a double-double in all seven games and a triple-double twice. Barnes was huge in the Clippers’ Game 7 victory with 17 points and a last-second defensive stop on an inbounds lob. Jones was solid during the Rockets’ triumph over the Mavericks and Ariza has helped upgrade the Rockets’ defense and three-point shooting. Edge: Clippers.
Center: DeAndre Jordan versus Howard. This would have been a huge mismatch as recently as two years ago, but Jordan has caught up to Howard as an elite defender who also is capable of scoring outbursts. Jordan also grabbed 13.1 rebounds per game in the first round against the Spurs. Howard averaged 3.0 blocks in the first round and held opponents to 39.6% shooting at the rim in the playoffs. Edge: Even.
Bench: Clippers Coach Doc Rivers indicated that he would go deeper on his bench in this series after largely using an eight-man rotation against the Spurs. Jamal Crawford could move into the starting lineup if Paul is hobbled, necessitating more minutes for fellow guards Austin Rivers and Lester Hudson. The Rockets have two starter-caliber reserves in Josh Smith and Corey Brewer. Smith repeatedly threw lobs to Howard in the first round and Brewer scored at least 15 points in four of the five games. Edge: Rockets.
Coaches: Rivers versus Kevin McHale. McHale’s Boston Celtics twice eliminated Rivers’ Atlanta Hawks in the playoffs in the 1980s, but Rivers has the upper-hand here. Rivers won a title with the Celtics in 2008 and went to the Finals in 2010. McHale is making his first foray past the first round as a coach. Edge: Clippers.
Intangibles: The Rockets showed remarkable consistency by not losing more than two consecutive games in the regular season. The presence of Howard (a 52.8% free-throw shooter during the regular season), Smith (52.1%) and Jones (60.6%) could provide the Clippers with three counter options should the Rockets try to intentionally foul Jordan (39.7%) as San Antonio did throughout the first round. The Clippers were plus-seven in situations when the Spurs intentionally fouled Jordan. Edge: Clippers.
Pick: Clippers in six games.