An absolute blood bath of a series is expected as the third seeded Los Angeles Clippers get set to tip off the Western Conference Semi-Finals against the second seeded Houton Rockets. The season series was split by the teams, with the Clippers dominating the first two, with star big man Dwight Howard, prior to the Rockets taking the final two, without Howard. Both finished with 56 victories and the Division Crown gave the Rockets the tie-breaker. Both ranked in the top six in point differential during the regular season, with the Clippers at number two and the Rockets taking the sixth slot.
The Rockets were able to dominate their in-state rival, Dallas Mavericks, and send them home after five games, allowing them to get an extended rest, as the last game was played back on April 28th. Howard was phenomenal, nearly looking like the Howard which led the Orlando Magic to the NBA Finals over five years ago. Averaging 16.6 points, 13.8 rebounds, 3 blocks, 1.6 steals while connecting on 58.2% from the field.
Harden wasn't too shabby himself, chipping in with 28.4 points and 7.8 assists, while connecting on 46.5% from the field, 38.7% from behind the arc while getting to the line 10.4 times a night. Many were hesitant on Harden's ability to earn whistles from the officials in the playoffs, as the whistle tends to be swallowed more often. If the first round is any indication, Harden will continue to get his trips to the line, whether fans believe they are deserved, or not. The Clippers, on the other end of the spectrum, went a grueling seven games against the defending champions, before an injured Chris Paul ended the series with a lay-up and a second remaining on the clock. A back and forth grueling series, as the Spurs won twice in Los Angeles while the Clippers returned the favor with two victories in Texas. Doc Rivers holding his own against Gregg Popovich was also quite impressive.
None was more impressive than the play of Blake Griffin, despite his late game anti-heroics. 24 points, 13 rebounds, 7.4 assists with 1.4 blocks and steals to only 2.7 turnovers is stunning for a power forward. Hitting 46.7% from the field and an improved 75.9% from the line is eye popping. Paul chipped in with a solid 22.7 points, 7.9 assists, 4.6 rebounds, 2 steals and 2.3 giveaways. Getting over 15 assists to 5 turnovers from your point guard and power forward combined is something to look forward too.
DeAndre Jordan held his own, as he'll need to continue to do so against Dwight, with averages of 12.6 points, 13.3 rebounds, 2.6 blocks while connecting on 71.4% from the field. His free throw shooting was abysmal at 38.4% on over 10 attempts. Believe it or not, that 38.4% is a drop off from his regular season percentage.
============================KEYS TO THE SERIES====================
Rest versus rust will be the key discussion prior to seeing the teams face off. With over a week off, whether the Rockets can come in and continue their spectacular play remains to be seen. Practices have been a workload, without doubt in Houston, however, no amount of practice can ever emulate the grueling play of a playoff game. For the Clippers, however, they had one day off after playing every other day, all the way to game seven. Lack of a deep bench also hurts here, as Rivers' goes three deep with Glen Davis, Jamal Crawford and his son.
Paul's health can not be overlooked either. Tweaking his hamstring during Game 7, with one game to recuperate isn't going to be sufficient enough to bounce back at full strength. He may not even appear during the opening game, as the current reports have him listed as questionable. I wouldn't take any stock in that, however, as Paul has too much competitive fire to fully sit out. Having his minutes reduced/watched seems more likely for the star guard.
Battle of the two defensive and rebounding bigs, that can not shoot free throws, may be the premier match-up to watch. Howard's been having some sort of a resurgence, as mentioned prior, while, Jordan continues on the incline, finishing third in the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year award voting. Both stars have an ego that will lead to requesting to guard their counter parts man up, leading to some potentially great play. Seeing how Howard reacts to the Clippers horns scheme, whilst rotating on Paul and Jordan's ability to recover after hedging may be what determines the victors.
Free throws. This series will give us enough free throws to last us a lifetime. Many have joked the games will last six hours instead of the usual three or so. With the Rockets having known to Hack-A-DJ prior, that may continue into the playoffs. If it occurs, Doc can easily counter by hacking Howard or Josh Smith, two guys who have been hacked throughout the season. Besides the intentional fouls, it'll be interesting to see if Harden can continue to force the officials to give him freebie trips, and how Paul will counter. To boot, the Rockets will struggle to slow down Griffin, which may lead him to getting to the line a good amount. Whoever wins the "Hack-A-??" match, may walk out with the series.
Three point shooting will be vital, as the Clippers have two guys that can go off at anytime, and the Rockets aren't lacking on that end either. While neither side are quite the Splash Brothers, the options are there, and the Clippers opening series showed how decisive the three ball may be. San Antonio, at times, was able to knock down threes at will, giving them the victory, while, other times, the Clippers seemed immortal from the arc. Jason Terry is a solid playoff performer as well.
===================================== X FACTORS ============================
For the Clippers, the X-Factor comes down to the play of JJ Reddick. The college superstar, turned NBA role player hit two key threes in Game Seven, giving some a deja vu back to his Duke days under Coach K. His defense is quite underrated, due to his lack of athleticism. Though, his play inside the teams defensive scheme's is quite solid. He has also done a decent to good job on Harden in past match-ups, which if it continues, will pay dividends as Paul can rest on Terry and Matt Barnes is better suited as a help defender.
Trevor Ariza may be the determining role factor for the home side. Championship experience flows through his veins, and his defensive prowess is well known throughout the basketball world, even by the casualist of casual fans. Rockets will need Ariza to contain Paul or Reddick, whomever he guards, as Harden nor Terry are quite known to be anything above mediocre on the defensive side. Open threes may also be there for Ariza, and he will need to convert those.