Everything about last night’s events during the Clippers-Rockets game was entirely unexpected.
Looking at this game as a self-professed fair-weather Houston fan (I have $100 riding on the Rockets winning 55+), I never thought for a second about the implications of a Chris Paul return to LA. To be fair, I didn’t think that the Rockets would do anything but steamroll Paul’s former team, so maybe the fault lies within my prediction abilities.
Still, outside of my less-than-impressive clairvoyant abilities, I think it’s safe to say that most people didn’t foresee a full-scale land war in Staples Center. Even now, it’s hard to know for sure exactly what transpired between locker rooms and between players, but we know that someone or someones from Houston showed up outside the LA locker room looking for reparations for some great and yet-unknown injustice. Hard news is largely inconclusive, but some have said Blake hit coach Mike D’Antoni, which could have sparked the tensions of the game into the brawl it nearly became.
Chris Paul, familiar with the lay of the land, reprised the role of Benedict Arnold during the postgame, leading three Rockets through a connecting tunnel between locker rooms. While reports vary, it seems that Harden, Ariza, and hot-for-Houston Gerald Green were the apocalyptic horsemen that Paul directed. Meanwhile, Clint Capela, the 6’10, 240lb block of Swiss cheese, was knocking on the front door of the Clippers locker.
As with any major NBA event, Twitter was lightning quick with the jokes.
At the heart of the hilarity is an interesting dynamic between two teams that know each other fairly well.
Of course, looking at these teams and the context surrounding this skirmish, things start to fall into place. For years, it seemed Paul was the center of both LA’s success and, reportedly, their chemistry issues. While that’s hardly been the case so far in Houston, we’re only two years removed from the Point God’s altercation with DeAndre Jordan when the latter failed to shoot the ball as time expired. Things like that have built into Paul’s reputation as a difficult player to work with. To many fans, he’s simply Kobe but with fewer wins and more complaints about foul calls. The Clippers were instantly tantalizing upon acquiring Paul in 2012, but they proceeded to disappoint in gradually steeper fashion as their core matured.
It makes sense that these pent-up frustrations solidified into plaque when Paul pressed for a sign-and-trade in the summer of 2017, fleeing a Los Angeles team now saddled with gigantic contracts for both Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. The Clippers went from B-tier to basement expectations in seconds, and while they filled out their roster admirably, injuries decimated any hope of true post-Paul prosperity initially. Still, this win over Houston was their fifth in a row, and LA has now beaten the top two Western teams by a combined 30 points in under a week. There is a prevailing sense in this Clippers locker room that they aren’t a team to be looked over, and for them to beat the point guard who fled for greener pastures… well, it certainly has to feel good.
For Paul and Houston, the season has certainly been a fun one — for the most part. The Rockets got off to a heck of a start even as Paul sat sidelined and looked indomitable when he returned, but they’ve slumped heavily (relative to their prior success) over the past month or so. The acquisition of Gerald Green has helped keep them afloat as Mike D’Antoni has tried desperately to find a workaround for the bevy of injuries his roster is suffering. They’ve done well, but the inability to close the door on mid or low-level teams has been disappointing at least. When the shots are falling, the Rockets are unbeatable, even without Harden. When they aren’t, it’s a frustrating grindfest for gritty wins and demoralizing losses. Last night’s game was the latter.
After leading through almost two quarters, the Rockets never jumped ahead again following a Lou Williams three (one of four throughout the night) that put the Clippers up 57–56 with a minute to go in the first half. From then on, the teams mostly just swapped baskets, but LA was making 55% of their shots; Houston made a mere 40.4%. The Clippers were more efficient from everywhere but the free throw line, though they got more chances there too. For Chris Paul, it was anything but a glorious return to the team he decided he couldn’t win with. While he played pretty well (19/6/7 on 8–17 shooting), running mates Eric Gordon (7–21) and Green (4–14) simply weren’t connecting. It’s easy to see how two losses to the Clippers, albeit one without Paul and one without Harden, could be embarrassing to the team that sent four rotation players to LA this summer in exchange for their new point guard.
But the question remains: is this a one-off incident between a scrappy lower-level team and a frustrated elite squad? Chris Paul and Patrick Beverly, though the latter will likely not return this season, are two of the angriest point guards in the league. Both have long memories and no problem holding grudges. A look at players’ tweets or quotes post-game gives the impression that neither team will forget this game:
That final quote may not strike you as fuel on the fire, but if you look at LA’s roster, you should realize that the guy most would view as the “go-to” for the Clippers isn’t Lou Williams — it’s Paul’s former teammate Blake Griffin. It’s not an accidental omission; Paul knows full well the importance of Griffin to this Clippers team, and a comparison between the careers of Williams and Griffin is almost laughable in the disparity of achievement.
Here’s where it gets really interesting. Should the playoff seeds hold their current order in the Western Conference, the Clippers would play the Rockets in the first round! So far, the Rockets have yet to beat them in a game, but as mentioned before, have never faced them with a healthy roster. It will also be interesting to watch the next two games these teams take part in, as Harden will likely have returned and DeAndre Jordan will hopefully be healthy as well. Whether the two teams will actually be in the same position come May is less than certain.
The Clippers’ hot run, though it has included the aforementioned wins over Houston and Golden State, has also included the Hawks and two games against the miserable Kings. this streak also pushed them into seventh, but they share a record with Denver and Portland (eighth and ninth seeds, respectively). Lou Williams’ scoring explosions have carried this team through the two difficult matchups, but as teams start to gameplan for his microwave abilities, a dropoff from Los Angeles should be expected. The Clippers are 10–13 when Williams shoots less than 15 times a game and 12–7 when he’s at or above that FGA threshold. Maybe Paul was onto something. This is a team that leans heavily on Lou Williams taking and making a high volume of shots, and if their playoff expectations rest on a 31-year-old 6’1 shooting guard currently averaging career-highs in PPG, eFG%, and minutes, things don’t look too stable for LA in the near future.
Houston, by comparison, figures to recover much of its injured roster over the next week or so, and hopefully, the lessened burden on Paul and Gordon will lead to an uptick in their fortunes. That’s not to say they’ll reclaim their place atop the Western standings, but they could certainly open up a gap on San Antonio while Kawhi rehabs from yet another injury. Their outside shooting has slumped, but knowing the personnel, it’s far from a damning trend. The Rockets will need to prove that they can win without hoisting a deluge of threes, but that is a gradual process. Like Los Angeles, this is still in many ways a new team, and learning how to win in uncomfortable situations will come.
Should these teams meet, though, it would be a great return to playoff bad blood: Beverly vs. Paul, Jordan vs. Capela, Ariza & Green vs. the Rivers family. One very good coach against one very bad one, though the former is ringless while the latter is adorned and apparently worth a first-round pick. Two teams tired of living the shadows of their state counterparts (San Antonio and Golden State). These teams, though they sit on opposite ends of the playoff bracket, both are thirsty to prove themselves — for Paul and D’Antoni, that they can win at a higher level. For Griffin and LA, that they can win without the NBA’s premier playmaking talent.
It shouldn’t disappoint, and even if it takes a little Adam Silver magic, please let this matchup happen.