A short six months ago, the Houston Rockets playing the Los Angeles Clippers was must-see TV. They were two elite Western Conference teams vying for a spot in the conference finals. The Clippers collapsed and the Rockets moved on, but similar successes were expected for both again this season. You wouldn’t know that by watching their matchup Saturday night.
I wanted to watch the game because they’re two of the most fascinating teams in the league, just for the reasons they’d like. But after only one quarter, I’d seen all I needed (or wanted) to see.
I’ll start with a short prelude. Houston started so badly at 4-7 they fired Kevin McHale, the guy who coached the team to the conference finals half a year earlier. They’ve since worked their way back to mediocrity at 13-14. The Clippers, on the other hand, have a merely good record of 16-11, but are playing more like a league average team. It was a battle of two teams who aren’t what they once were, and desperately wanted to be.
I’m now going to list some things I saw in just the first twelve minutes of this game, prepare yourselves:
- Trevor Ariza scoring off the opening tip before the Clippers could get in a defensive stance
- Dwight Howard throwing a pass off Patrick Beverly’s face
- both teams giving up wide open looks on defense
- both teams failing to convert those wide open looks
- Clint Capela losing the ball on his way up for an easy dunk
- James Harden missing two wide open threes within five seconds
- Luc Mbah a Moute clanking a corner three off the side of the backboard
- Wesley Johnson airballing a corner three far over the rim
- Blake Griffin putting a sick crossover on Donatas Montiejunas then dribbling off his knee
- probably more, it was tough to watch for long stretches at a time
Around that point, the benches came in. I barely even noticed at that point that the Rockets were running away with the game handily. Because you saw just a few glimpses from each team of what they could be; the rest was just a blur of blah. Remember, these are supposed to be championship contenders.
Chris Paul started off with a few classic CP3 possessions and the Clippers had 7 points in the first 3 minutes. They scored 10 in the final 9. DeAndre Jordan defended Howard nicely after a couple early buckets. Harden was slinging passes, including two back-to-back to Montiejunas that were some of the prettiest you’ll find. Howard put in a few post moves that resembled peak Dwight. But that’s really it; the Clippers just couldn’t play defense.
You know it’s bad when you’re relieved when the backups come in, especially when the Clippers are involved. And that’s why the Rockets are actually in better shape than Los Angeles, despite their record. Just watch one quarter of any game. The Clippers have four players you really want. The rest have no business on an elite team. Josh Smith played at center in this game. Mbah a Moute started and played only five minutes. Doc Rivers has no idea how to handle this roster. I don’t know who could.
Contrast this with the Rockets, who had Ty Lawson suspended and it didn’t even matter. They’re better off without him anyway. You could give me five other non-starters on Houston and I’d trust them in a playoff game. They didn’t play like that in the first month, with a maddening lack of togetherness. But I still believe they can turn it around. Los Angeles doesn’t inspire that belief.
But to be clear, both these teams will be in the playoffs. The West isn’t good enough this year to cut them out. But it will likely be a sad appearance for both. They’ll run into the Warriors, Spurs, or Thunder. The gap between that tier of teams and this one right now is longer than Steph Curry’s three point range.
That may be the saddest spot to be in sports. You can see championship contention, but there’s that gap between you know you’re not getting across. Look for these teams to make moves this year, to build a bridge to elite status. Maybe it will work. There’s plenty of talent there. But as long as they play bumbling 48 minutes stretches like Saturday night, it’s not going to be enough.