The Rockets entered their contest against the L.A. Clippers already missing both Eric Gordon and Nenê for extended periods of time, and then on top of that it was announced that regular starter Danuel House would miss another game, after being considered doubtful. This meant that they would have to start Ben McLemore, who has struggled with his shooting to begin the season. The Clippers were also missing Landry Shamet, but their team has the depth for him to be easily replaced, Maurice Harkless slotting into the starting lineup seamlessly. The Clippers entered the game with a 10-5 record, whereas Houston had recorded 11 wins to only 4 losses, making it a game to watch.
Early on, the Clippers were effectively using Pick and Roll to create plentiful opportunities for starting Center Ivica Zubac inside, as they raced out to a 12-4 lead early on. Former MVP Russell Westbrook was over relying on his jumpshot early, forcing ill-advised shots and was part of the reason the Rockets got off to such a poor start. The Clippers made their intentions clear very early on in the game, doubling and trapping James Harden almost every time up the court, relying on quick switches off-ball to recover. This worked for the most part, but didn’t stop Harden getting his offense. As soon as Harden came off, the Rockets looked stagnant offensively and Montrezl Harrell took advantage, scoring 4 quick points and the Clippers took an 8 point lead into quarter time.
The second quarter was marked by a much improved performance from Russell Westbrook after he struggled significantly early, attacking the rim more aggressively without having to pull up and shoot over opponents. Clint Capela worked with both Harden and Westbrook as an option close to the rim, getting easy lobs and finishes from some clever ball movement by the two of them. James Harden was still scoring consistently, already on 8 free throw attempts with 8:43 left in the second quarter. The Clippers led by as much as 14, but the Rockets charged back after some lazy play by the Clippers, bringing the score back to 46-45. Lou Williams was shooting the ball badly and turning it over also, but his playmaking was smart, notably on a great drive and dish to Harkless inside, breaking the 13-0 run by the Rockets. The Clippers took a 55-51 lead into halftime after recovering from a poor stretch around halfway through the quarter. Both teams were turning the ball over at a high rate, with the Clippers shooting a high percentage from both the field and from three. The Rockets got to the free throw line 19 times in the first half to the Clippers 2, which very much kept them in the game.
Ben McLemore was incredible in this quarter, putting in a lot of energy and great hustle to help keep the Rockets in the game. Lou Williams got hot, Paul George struggled and James Harden just did James Harden things. The Rockets were clearly playing very isolation heavy basketball, but they still managed to move the ball around with enough regularity to find a plethora of open shooters. The Clippers were attacking in numbers, finding cutters, driving and playing inside-out basketball, shooting at will. The Rockets went on multiple large runs this quarter, including an 11-0, after the Clippers' ball movement dissipated. Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell combining well to keep the Clippers in the game, as a much more free-flowing quarter ends 84-80.
The Rockets started out the fourth quarter with 4 team fouls in only 19 seconds, putting Westbrook on 4 fouls. The Clippers dominated with Harden and Capela off without any offense or rim protection of any sort for the Rockets. Austin Rivers, after air-balling two threes and struggling all game, finally starting hitting, with two threes and an acrobatic layup to tie the game at 96. With the Rockets in the bonus early, the Clippers began to make regular trips to the free throw line, playing a lot of one on one while the Rockets were zipping the ball around. JaMychal Green was extremely good in the second half, fighting hard for loose rebounds and playing good defense. The lead would change back and forth once both teams hit 100, the Clippers hanging in by drawing foul after foul. A Harden three put Houston ahead 113-109 and then by 6 after Clint Capela came up with a huge finish at the rim. Three threes for the Clippers would give them a 118-117 lead, Harden would sink two free throws and then Kawhi Leonard would hit a clutch mid-range that ended up winning them the game. Missed three by Westbrook, two free throws by George and one final defensive possession closed the game out for the Clippers.
The Clippers' win takes them to 11-5 for the season, the same as the Rockets, as the two teams establish themselves as premier contenders in the West. James Harden would play one of his best games thus far this season, 37 points, 8 rebounds and 12 assists on 9-16 shooting. PJ Tucker provided unbelievable energy and hustle while shooting the ball when the opportunities came. Westbrook struggled to find his rhythm in this game and slightly underperformed. Capela was great, rebounding, defending and finishing his way to 17 points and 19 rebounds. McLemore was hitting his threes and played hard on both ends of the floor. Lou Williams had 0 points in the first half, but ended the game with 26, shooting 9-12 in the second half. Kawhi played a big game, rebounding and defending well while providing his normal scoring when needed. Paul George played a good all-around game but was very inefficient for the first time this season, as his jumpshot just wasn’t falling. Montrezl Harrell and Ivica Zubac provided a great 1-2 punch at the Center position, and Patrick Beverley struggled with foul trouble the entire game.
The difference between the two teams was the execution down the stretch, and the Rockets set themselves up for failure after those four early fouls.