After seeing earlier in the day the Phoenix Suns blow a 13-point lead in the fourth quarter to the Mavericks and lose, that had to give Houston even more reason to take care of business in LA Sunday night.
A win against the Clippers, and Houston could move one full game ahead of Phoenix for the 5th playoff spot in the West, and one game behind San Antonio and the Lakers for second or third place with 5 games to play.
So the Rockets came into Staples Center and put together one of their most complete games since the 22-game winning streak, beating the Clips 105-79. It’s exactly what they need to get in a playoff mindset.
It didn’t hurt that the Clippers have been injury-riddled the entire season, with more games missed by players than any other team this season. With Chris Kaman and Shaun Livingston out for the season, Elton Brand playing just his third game of the season after missing most of it because of Achilles surgery, and their leading scorer (22.5 points) Corey Maggette having to leave the game early for good with a strained hamstring, they really had no chance.
Meanwhile, Houston’s offense started off hot as the Rockets made 11 of its first 19 shots to take a 30-20 lead. That 10-point lead was an important milestone since the Clippers are only 7-47 this season when they fall behind by double-digits.
After that point, the Rockets were never really threatened as they built a 20-point lead by halftime, 62-42. Hitting 6-of-11 three-pointers was a key to building that lead compared to LA’s 1-of-3 (that one three-pointer is all they would make for the entire game).
The Clips would cut it to 13 points in the third quarter as Houston’s offense stagnated with only 18 points in the quarter. But Houston’s reserves did an admirable job in the fourth, surging the lead back to 20+ points to show the Rockets’ offense is getting tuned for the stretch run.
Houston’s offense was firing on all cylinders as 6 players scored in double-figures, led by backup point guard rookie Aaron Brooks. On the bench for so long after the acquisition of Bobby Jackson, Brooks has shown the past couple of games he hasn’t missed a beat.
AB used his speed and ability to get into the lane (or to the hole) in a flash, hitting 7-of-9 from the field and 2-of-3 three-pointers to score a game-high 18 points. He also had 4 assists and zero turnovers. Houston’s point guard future is bright.
Luther Head also had an impressive game, scoring 15 points on 6-of-10 shooting with a mixture of drives to the hole and jumpers shot with confidence. He also had 3 assists and 2 steals.
With such production from the backcourt, the Rockets could afford to NOT rely on Tracy McGrady having to bail them out in the second half like he had done the past two games against Portland and Seattle.
McGrady would only make 5-of-16 shots, 1-of-5 three-pointers, and score 13 points. But he almost had a triple-double with 9 assists and 8 rebounds. One of my favorite plays from McGrady came in the first half when he aggressively swiped at a shot attempt by Al Thornton for a block, leading to a fast break the other way. The way he got up in the air and swiped at the ball as it left Thornton’s hands, it was like he was 18 or 19 years old again showing he had something to prove on the defensive end.
Bobby Jackson started in place of Rafer Alston for the 3rd straight game. He made less than 1/3rd of this shots (4-of-13), but two of them were 3-pointers (2-of-4) on his way to 13 points.
I loved the energy Luis Scola put into the offense early in the game. When the offense seemed to stagnate, he was the one guy who refused to just hold the ball or dribble a couple of steps before passing it. Scola took it strong to the hole numerous times forcing the Clipper defense to react to him. He made 3-of-4 shots in the first and was fouled multiple times to go to the line for 6 free throws, making 5 of them. Scola would finish with 16 points on 4-of-5 shooting and 8-of-10 from the line. His free throw shooting has really improved as the season has worn on. Usually it’s the other way around.
Last but not least, Dikembe Mutombo provided bonus points, scoring 8 points on 4-of-6 shots (6 points straight at one point in the third quarter), all around the rim of course. He and Chuck Hayes led the Rockets in rebounding (7 each) as Houston dominated the boards, 51-33.
The only thing the Rockets did poorly was trying to force passes into the paint too many times in the first quarter (a couple by McGrady), leading to at least 3 turnovers in that quarter.
The Rockets now have a couple of days off until they play the Sonics in Houston Wednesday night, followed by tough games against Phoenix, the Nuggets in Denver and the Jazz in Utah before finishing the season April 16th against the Clippers.
I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to have the playoffs start already. The Rockets clinched a playoff spot with the win Sunday night, but if they finish sixth or fifth, I’ll be okay with that. Sure, it would be great for them to finish in the top 4 spots to hold homecourt. But the Rockets have been playing well enough on the road this season, it wouldn’t be the end of the world if they didn’t have homecourt advantage in the first round.