In a second round that has featured three unbelievable game-winning shots in two separate series (CHI-CLE, WAS-ATL), and a great stylistic battle between the Warriors and the Grizzlies, the Clippers-Rockets series hasn’t been particularly close. The Clippers seem to be clicking on all cylinders, now holding a 3-1 series lead despite Chris Paul working his way back from his hamstring injury on a minutes restriction.
I might just be more excited about this than most actual Clipper fans.
Before the playoffs began, and right after I learned the Miami Heat had officially been eliminated from postseason contention, I tweeted out three postseason “wishes” since I didn’t really have a rooting interest among the teams that would actually be competing for a championship.
1. I wanted the Atlanta Hawks to make believers out of everyone, and at least make an Eastern Conference Finals appearance. If they can get past Washington, I can check this off.
2. I wanted James Harden to have a huge postseason to follow up his MVP campaign (should’ve won it, by the way) to break the stigma of him coming up short in postseason play.
3. Most importantly, I wanted to be wrong about my Spurs-Clippers series prediction because I desperately wanted Chris Paul to lead the Clippers on a deep playoff run to shut up his detractors. I was definitely wrong with that prediction, and Chris Paul ended the series with a game-winner as a bonus.
The Clippers have used the confidence built by defeating the defending champion San Antonio Spurs and have proceeded to breeze through the Houston Rockets so far this series, putting them one win away from their first ever Western Conference Finals appearances.
So how exactly have they done this?
1. The Bounce Brothers
Considering how he dominated against the San Antonio Spurs, nobody should be surprised at Blake Griffin having his way against the likes of Terrence Jones and Josh Smith, neither of them having the combination of strength and lateral quickness to guard Griffin in the post, nor deal with his playmaking off the dribble.
Griffin notched a triple-double in Game 1, his third of the postseason, and has averaged 25.8 points on 53.4 percent shooting from the field and a 63.8 percent field goal clip from inside six feet, 12.8 rebounds, and 6.0 assists throughout the series. With total postseason averages of 24.7 points, 13 rebounds, 6.9 assists, 1.1 steals and 1.1 blocks, a solid argument could be made that Grffin has been the most dominant player in this year’s playoffs.
What is a bit surprising is that as dominant as Blake Griffin has been offensively, DeAndre Jordan has been nearly as dominant on defense. Coming from someone who thought Jordan shouldn’t have even finished in the top three of Defensive Player of the Year (DPOY) voting, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how he has not only neutralized Dwight Howard to a degree, he’s made it darn-near impossible for the Rockets to get good looks inside.
He’s been controlling the glass, averaging 10.3 defensive rebounds per game in the series. He’s been active and jumpy, blocking a shade under two shots a night, wreaking havoc when guarding the pick-and-roll, and nearly averaging two steals a night. His overall rim protection and post defense has finally caught up to his shot blocking prowess, my main criticism of Jordan defensively. The Rockets have only shot 41.2 percent inside of six feet against Jordan, 20.4 percent BELOW their normal average.
2. The Role Players
DeAndre Jordan has anchored the defense while Blake Griffin has been The Man offensively, but they certainly haven’t done it alone.
J.J. Redick has been very good on both ends, averaging 19.5 points including an absurd 14-26 clip from three. On defense, he’s actually done a solid job guarding James Harden, doing his best to force him right, and otherwise funneling him into Jordan.
Matt Barnes has played well defensively, allowing his opponents to shoot a shade under 43% from the field when guarded by him. Nobody, or their mothers, have been safe.
Glen Davis has played surprisingly well as a small-ball refrigera- er, I mean center off the bench. Jamal Crawford has had his moments sparking runs with his isolation creativity. Outside of James Harden and Dwight Howard, nobody for Houston has consistently shown up or chipped in to help them out.
3. Austin Rivers
Seriously, who the heck saw an Austin Rivers breakout coming?
His jumper has been falling. He’s finished some ridiculously tough layups off glass. He’s crossed up just about everyone, including himself. He’s competed hard defensively, with opponents shooting 4-18 (22.2 percent) outside of 15 feet when guarded by Rivers this series.
Rivers has had to play a bigger role than imagined considering Chris Paul missed the first two games of the series. On the surface, that should’ve spelled doom for the Clippers. However, Rivers has averaged 16 points on 55.8 percent shooting from the field this series, with his signature game coming in Game 3. Rivers exploded in the third quarter of Game 3, scoring 15 of his 25 points there and sparking a 20-3 run that really put that game out of reach.
This type of production couldn’t have come at a better time for the Clippers, who are on the verge of a Western Conference Finals berth. It also should pay off for Austin Rivers, literally, considering he’s set to hit the free agent market this summer. Doc Rivers the GM, the coach and the father has to be extremely proud — probably in that order.
Barring the Rockets having some sort of a “Come to Jesus” epiphany and playing their best basketball of the year, this series is likely over. With Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan anchoring the paint on opposite ends, J.J. Redick and Matt Barnes holding down the perimeter and Austin Rivers breaking out, the Clippers have captured something like five different lightning bolts in their playoff bottle.
What’s even scarier is the fact that Chris Paul is getting healthier. If the Clippers finish the deal in Game 5, they’ll get even more rest for Paul and others while the Warriors and Grizzlies beat each other up on the other end of the West bracket. If things work out right, the Clippers will be making more franchise history in June, adding a banner to the arena that nobody could mock — a championship banner.