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Rockets-Clippers Series Preview: Does L.A. Have Enough Left in the Tank to Topple a Rested Houston Squad?

The second-seeded Houston Rockets and third-seeded Los Angeles Clippers tip off Game 1 Monday of their Western Conference Semifinals matchup in what should be an entertaining series.

The squads are coming off two vastly different first-round series. In five games, the Rockets disposed of the Dallas Mavericks, who had chemistry issues with point guard Rajon Rondo and were without forward Chandler Parsons for the last four games.

However, the Clippers went the full seven games with the defending champion San Antonio Spurs. Most of the contests were close and we saw remarkably high levels of basketball played by both teams. Los Angeles point guard Chris Paul finally iced the series with a tiebreaking floater with a second to go:

Both the Rockets and Clippers won exactly 56 regular-season games and seem to be similarly evenly-matched in this playoff matchup. Let’s look at each team’s path to this round, X-factor and finally make a series prediction.

How did the Rockets get here?

Although James Harden didn’t win this year’s NBA MVP award, he had an MVP-level year in 2014-15 as Houston’s chief manufacturer of offense. He averaged 27.4 points, 5.7 rebounds and 7.0 assists during the regular season and maintained those numbers in the first round. (28.4, 3.8 and 7.8, respectively)

Star center Dwight Howard would have helped Harden out more throughout the season, but he missed more than half of the regular season with injuries. Key rotation members Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas and Patrick Beverley also missed chunks as they struggled to stay healthy. Motiejunas and Beverley are still out, but Howard and Jones are back now and playing well.

In the first round, Houston creamed the Mavericks with a relentless offensive onslaught and a strong eight-man rotation. The Rockets averaged 114.2 points per game, 10.3 more than they did during the regular season.

The squad continues to push “Moreyball,” a analytics-based approach to offensive play championed by general manager Daryl Morey. On most possessions, Houston aims to get a three-pointer, a shot at the rim or free throws. According to statistics, these are the most efficient shots.

Harden is the head of the Moreyball snake, as his penetration often leads to kick-outs for threes, layups and dunks for him or an open teammate or a shooting foul.

Who’s the Rockets’ X-Factor?

Josh Smith. Houston acquired the talented power forward in December after the Detroit Pistons waive him in December, and he has been a valuable member of the Rockets’ second unit.

His decision-making is questionable at times, especially regarding shot selection and turnovers. In the first round, he took more shots per 36 minutes (18.6) than Harden. (17.2) He also averaged 3.0 turnovers in the series, which is far too many for a big man playing only 25.6 minutes per game.

For all the negatives, Smith is still an athletic defensive stopper and point-producer for the Rockets. He’s also an underrated passer. In the first round, he hooked up with Howard for numerous alley-oops:

The Clippers’ best (and really only) bench big man is Glen Davis. He’s a solid defender and decent offensive player, but can you see the chunky post succeeding against Smith’s far superior athleticism?

In the first round, the former All-Star averaged 24.5 points, 9.0 rebounds and 5.3 assists per 36 minutes. If he stays near those numbers while making better decisions, the Rockets will have an excellent chance to beat the Clippers.

How did the Clippers get here?

Just like all season, Los Angeles won its first-round series against San Antonio on the strength of its killer starting lineup.

The Clippers’ starters combined for 80.7 points per game in the epic seven-game tussle against the Spurs, led by 24.1 from Blake Griffin and 22.7 from Paul. The group, when on the floor together, had a net rating of plus-7.6, not an eye-popping number but excellent considering how often it was used and how good the opposition was.

Off the bench, Davis packed some serious two-way punch in limited minutes. Jamal Crawford and Austin Rivers were inconsistent, but had some big moments to shift momentum in Los Angeles’ favor.

Known for being playoff chokers, the Clippers also showed a great amount of mental fortitude throughout the series.

After losing Game 3 by 27 points, Los Angeles came back to win Game 4 in San Antonio. When the Spurs won and took a 3-2 lead back to the Alamo City, the Clippers made the big plays down the stretch in Games 6 and 7 to beat the most experienced and best-coached team in the league. Credit head coach Doc Rivers and the players for not laying down when adversity struck.

Who’s the Clippers’ X-Factor?

Paul, without a doubt. An X-factor isn’t usually a team’s best player, but with CP3’s health being such a question mark, he has to be the guy whose performance swings the Clippers’ chances the most in one direction or the other.

We saw how he played in Game 7 against the Spurs despite being hobbled. He was hitting everything, whether from the outside or from mid-range, contested and uncontested. But he had to operate from the outside, since he struggled to speed past his defenders. His ability to change directions and maneuver screens on defense was also compromised.

So, kudos to him for a great performance through adversity, but an injured Paul probably won’t be quite that good again.

Now, if CP3 completely regains his mobility while staying ridiculously hot from the outside, he’ll be impossible to contain. That’s a combination that all but ensures a Clippers series win.

What happened in the season series?

The teams split the season series 2-2. Here’s a brief summary of each game:

Game 1 (Nov. 28): Clippers win 102-85

The Clippers had no problem disposing of a Rockets team without three starters, including Howard. Griffin torched the likes of Motiejunas and Tarik Black for 30 points and 10 rebounds.

Game 2 (Feb. 11): Clippers win 110-95

Howard was out again, but so was Griffin. DeAndre Jordan took advantage more than the Rockets’ bigs did, totaling 24 points and 20 rebounds. Some of those points came in Hack-a-Jordan situations, but it was an impressive performance either way. The Rockets were ice-cold from three, shooting 9-0f-45 from the great beyond.

Game 3 (Feb. 25): Rockets win 110-105

With Howard and Griffin still both out, the Rockets won this contest by passing the ball more cleanly than Los Angeles, earning a 27-to-9 assist-to-turnover ratio compared to 18-to-15 for the Clippers. Corey Brewer also scored 13 fourth-quarter points.

Game 4 (March 15): Rockets win 100-98

Harden had his best game of the season series with 34 points, seven rebounds and seven assists, pushing the Rockets to the close victory over Los Angeles. Howard was still out, but Griffin couldn’t take advantage, scoring only 11 points.

Who will win?

First of all, you really should take the season series between the Clippers and Rockets with a grain of salt. Injuries abounded throughout the four games and the squads now find themselves in very different positions heading into Monday night’s showdown in Houston.

The whole “rest vs. rust” argument will certainly be relevant in this series. The Rockets haven’t played since last Tuesday while the Clippers are coming off a grueling seven-game series against the Spurs.

There could be an adjustment period to start Game 1 for the Rockets, who aren’t used to playing a team as good as the Clippers. On the other hand, fatigue could definitely be a factor for Los Angeles, who had three starters play more than 39 minutes per game in their first round.

Strategically, both Harden and a healthy CP3 present matchup problems for the opposition.

Los Angeles doesn’t have that ideal perimeter defender who can shut down big 2-guards like The Beard. Matt Barnes and J.J. Redick will probably switch off on Harden, with Barnes checking him the majority of the time.

The Rockets are starting a 37-year-old Jason Terry in Beverley’s place, which means they’ll have to find someone else to guard Paul. Trevor Ariza is the most logical candidate (with Brewer doing it in reserve), but they’ll need to find someone for Harden to cover. Redick is an option, but Houston would rather its offensive star didn’t have to run around all those screens to chase the three-point specialist. If Harden guards Barnes, Terry will have to be the one running around those screens. It’s not ideal, but that final scenario is probably the most likely one.

If CP3 is even somewhat healthy, the Clippers will have the advantage in the starting lineup, as they would against any team in the league. Of course, Smith and Brewer off the bench keeping both the Rockets’ perimeter and post players fresh is huge for Houston and a definite advantage there.

Basically, the teams are almost a wash, with CP3’s health as the huge deciding factor. He’s still questionable to play Game 1.

With home-court advantage in the Rockets’ favor, probability that Paul’s mobility will be affected at least initially and fatigue taking a slight toll on the Clippers, I think Houston will pull it out.

Series Prediction: Rockets in 7 (R0ckets win Games 1, 2, 5 and 7)

Note: All statistics are from Basketball-Reference.com or NBA.com and accurate as of May 4 unless otherwise indicated.

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