LOS ANGELES — Head coach Doc Rivers announced a couple hours prior to tip-off that Blake Griffin would in fact be returning to the lineup against the Houston Rockets. Griffin had missed the team’s previous 14 games following surgery for staph infection in his right elbow.
And while his return without a doubt was expected to play a key role, rather it was the Clippers’ inability to guard the Rockets on the perimeter that ultimately told the story.
The Clippers got out to an early 10-point lead with a couple minutes remaining in the first quarter, pushing the ball and getting wide open shots from beyond the arc. Matt Barnes and J.J. Redick combined for 26 of the Clippers’ 30 points in the first quarter.
Despite the disparity early on with each side’s three-point shooting, Houston’s physical play kept them within four-to-six points for much of the second quarter, before taking a one-point lead midway through the quarter.
James Harden, who finished with 34 points on 7-for-16 shooting from the field and 17-for-18 from the charity stripe, scored 18 points in the second quarter alone, putting the Rockets up 58-50 at halftime.
The second half saw much of the same with Houston continuing to control and dictate the tempo. The Clippers brought it to within five points around the 8-minute mark of the fourth quarter.
In a stretch that could have easily gotten out of hand for the Clippers, both Nate Robinson’s energy and Glen ‘Big Baby’ Davis’ hustle kept the Clippers in game that looked like an inevitable loss in most parts of the second half.
Despite the second unit’s efforts, Chris Paul put up an air ball in the final moments to come up short, 100-98.
“This is a make-miss league,” Rivers said after the game. “We missed many wide open shots, especially down the stretch. Terrence Jones also made a contested three-pointer down the stretch. We just have to live with it.”
Here are three things we learned from the Clippers loss to the Rockets:
Blake Griffin’s mere presence on the floor changes this team’s dynamics, both positive and negative
Griffin returned to the lineup after missing the last 14 games. Although fans had expected Griffin to return either Sunday or Tuesday, Rivers’ announcement a couple hours prior to tipoff gave the certainty everyone was hoping for. Griffin even came out early to sign autographs for fans and get some shots up with teammate DeAndre Jordan.
On the season, Griffin averages 5.1 assists per game, most for forwards in the Western Conference. He had six in today’s first half, finishing the game with eight, to go along with his 11 points and 11 rebounds.
Despite Griffin potentially having a negative impact on the team today, mostly due to his lack of control and eagerness to force certain shots, the Clippers are more threatening with him in the lineup. What will determine whether or not he’s able to seamlessly fit back in is his conditioning.
“Our chemistry will be fine,” Rivers said in his post-game press conference. “I am sure we will have our growing pains, but overall we will be good. DeAndre [Jordan] and Blake [Griffin] have played together for a long time.”
The staph infection was the type of injury that forced Griffin to not participate in any activity, even simple jogging. As such, his conditioning and stamina heading into the postseason will be highly indicative of the team’s success.
His return Sunday had distracting impact on the team, as coach Rivers explained following the loss.
“We need to play harder and be more aggressive,” Rivers said. “I thought we were distracted with everything but the game. I told them at halftime that the referees have nothing to do with why we are losing. We were missing shots and we were frustrated.”
“After being away that long, [Blake Griffin] was great,” Paul said following the game. “It’s tough coming back. Everybody wants you to be the same guy, but that takes time. We have to let him work his way back.”
DeAndre Jordan is the team’s MVP
Sunday marked the fifteenth-straight game in which Clippers center DeAndre Jordan finished with at least 14 rebounds, the longest streak since Dennis Rodman did it in 24 straight from 1992-93.
Jordan finished the contest with 5 points (2-3 FG, 1-8 FTs), 20 rebounds, and 4 blocks, but the majority of his impact was seen off the box score. Against a team like Houston that prefers to shoot only three-pointers or get to the basket, Jordan’s role defensively becomes even more magnified.
As was the case against the Rockets on Sunday, the Clippers forced their shooters off the three-point line, knowing the type of rim protector they have in Jordan.
This strategy helped the Clippers win the three-point battle, making 12-for-26 compared to Houston’s 7-for-30. Houston shot just 37 percent from the field, and the No. 1 reason Houston struggled offensively was due to Jordan’s activity on defense.
Jordan did everything he possibly could to positively impact the game. L.A. was in a spot to come out on top at the end, but didn’t.
“We made plays, made key plays,” Harden said after the game. “Trevor [Ariza] turned the ball over, got back took a charge, Then obviously we put really good defense on Chris Paul on the last possession. Two really good teams are going to come down to the last few plays and obviously we made them.”
Clippers need to take better care of the ball
The Clippers had 20 turnovers in Sunday’s game compared to just 12 for the Rockets. More importantly, Houston got 27 points off those 20 turnovers, over a quarter of their points being yielded from sloppy play.
So far on the season, the Clippers are No. 2 in the league when it comes to team turnovers per possession. They’re also No. 2 in the league in turnovers per offensive play, understandably one of the best at taking care of the ball with Paul leading the way.
Sunday, however, was a different story.
“I had some bad turnovers,” Paul said after the loss. “On one, I drove it off [DeAndre Jordan’s] foot, the other one I lost towards the end of the half. We have to take better care of the ball. We still had an opportunity to win, but we just didn’t do it.”