The Rockets are no longer on a monstrous winning streak, having been defeated by the Raptors late last week, but they have won their past two games. The latest of these was a straightforward 109-93 effort against the Spurs, in which James Harden continued his probable MVP season with 28 points and six assists.
Houston are refusing to relinquish top position in the Western Conference to the Warriors. The Rockets sit at 53-14, just 1.5 games ahead of their rivals from Oakland, and if they continue to win, the number one seed will be theirs come the end of the season.
The Clippers are further down the standings, but have arguably more to play for. At 37-29, they are in seventh place in the west, but the Nuggets in tenth are just a single game back, while the Thunder in fourth are just two games ahead.
Los Angeles needs every win they can get, and have helped their cause hugely by winning their past three games. The latest of these was a 112-106 win over the Bulls, in which DeAndre Jordan shot 11 for 12 on his way to 29 points, 18 rebounds, and five assists.
Three keys to the game
Last time they met - It was an onslaught from the start. The Rockets came out of the blocks on a mission when the sides faced one another a couple of weeks ago, dominating the Clippers 34-12 in the first quarter. Los Angeles kept it somewhat interesting for the rest of the game and only lost by 13 points, but the result was never in any great doubt.
The Clippers’ form - The Clippers have been a new side since the end of the trade period, when they traded star forward Blake Griffin. In the 18 games that have passed since then, Los Angeles are 13-5. Their offense has been the main reason for this, with their rating of 110.6 at this end of the floor placing them sixth in the league in this time, and putting them alongside elite offensive sides like the Warriors, Cavaliers, and Timberwolves.
3-point shooting - Whenever the Rockets are playing, this is inevitably a relevant factor. Houston takes easily the most 3-point attempts in the league, and score 46.2 points per game from beyond the arc. In contrast, the Clippers are below league-average in both attempts and efficiency from deep, and score just 29.7 points from long range each game.
Matchup to watch
Lou Williams vs James Harden - Williams and Harden both have competent backcourt partners (Paul obviously significantly more so than Rivers), but they are the two most ball-dominant players in this game. Harden is the raging MVP favorite, and deservedly so for a year which has seen him average 31.0 points, 8.7 assists and 1.9 steals per game. His defense has improved, his 3-point shooting is the highest it’s ever been, and he has become one of the best isolation players in NBA history.
He will need to be on his game against Williams though, as the Clippers point guard is having comfortably the best season of his career and was no doubt close to being made an All-Star. Williams averages 23.1 points per game coming predominantly off the bench, and has shown everyone his facilitatory ability with 5.4 assists per game, comfortably the most of his career.
Houston Rockets predicted starting lineup
PG - Chris Paul | SG - James Harden | SF - Trevor Ariza | PF - PJ Tucker | C - Clint Capela
Los Angeles Clippers predicted starting lineup
PG - Lou Williams | SG - Austin Rivers | SF - Tobias Harris | PF - Sindarius Thornwell | C - DeAndre Jordan
Harden has generally not reached his usual level of excellence against the Clippers. His 19.3 points per game against them comes on just 40.4% shooting from the field, and 30.1% shooting from beyond the arc. His 5.5 assists per game in the 29 matchups against Los Angeles is also down on his average, and is accompanied by 3.8 turnovers. When he played the Clippers just a couple of weeks though, he was an important part of the victory, contributing 25 points and seven assists.
The Rockets have made a name for themselves as a team which enjoys dishing out drubbings, and it is for this reason they have been given an 11-point handicap against a very capable opposition. Houston are more than capable of extending a lead past this margin in the blink of an eye, but the Clippers have been playing great basketball for a long time now, and should be able to cover this line.
The Clippers have every right to feel they have a chance to challenge the Rockets in this game, considering the way they have been playing for an extended period of time. The unfortunate reality for them, though, is that Houston are quite simply an extremely good side.
With Harden and Paul running what is a seamless offense, and the Rockets’ defense also developing into one of the best in the league, they will be able to add yet another victory to what is fast becoming an incredible season. They’ll run out 114-105 winners at home.
The game will be broadcast locally on ATTSN-SW and Fox Sports Prime Ticket. Tip-off is at 8pm ET.