James Harden

The Los Angeles Clippers lose two in a row, this time 109-105 to the Houston Rockets, despite all the high flying from Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. Chris Paul didn’t play, James Harden getting to the free throw line with ease, Lance Stephenson air balls in unique ways and above all is Dwight Howard illegally blocking a shot and getting away with it.

It comes down to single plays that define games. With the Rockets retaking the lead 107-105 following two Harden free throws, the Clippers go to Griffin (with 35 points) to try and tie the game. He takes Howard to the basket and get a layup to bounce on the rim. Howard touches the ball and helps it miss, but no call, and the Clippers foul Ty Lawson and lose. Not a disaster, but more like an example of how officiating can really have an effect on a game.

This wasn’t the Clippers remembering the meltdown from last season in the playoffs against the Rockets. This was a very good team hobbled by not having its All-Star point guard on the floor, but making the most of their opponents poor defense. Besides Josh Smith, the bench didn’t give the Clippers much. J.J. Redick scored 19 points, Jordan finished with 11 and 14 rebounds and Austin Rivers had 10 points, but did more harm than good in his rare start. It’s good to be the head coach’s son.

Harden did score 46 points, shooting 14-of-26 from the field and going 13-of-14 from the line. Some of those fouls were the kind only Harden gets, but from time to time he’ll get away with it. Dwight Howard had himself a 20-20 game but turned the ball over five times and got himself into foul trouble. The Rockets got 16 points out of Marcus Thornton in their three-guard lineup, which worked pretty well, even if Ty Lawson is struggling to find rhythm in a very different offense than the one he is used to from his Denver days.

The Rockets feel like the season is starting to shape up the way they want it. Not just Harden finding his offensive groove, but Howard finally healthy, and that’s pretty much the basis to it all. The Clippers could have played much better team defense on Harden, as Griffin said after the game (while talking about the review that didn’t help his team), but it’s not like he can be completely shut down. At least not by anyone on the Clippers, who aren’t great at defending perimeter players.

There will be three more games between these two teams this season, and they’re probably all going to be some of the best, or at least most fun basketball we get to watch in 2015-2016. A fully healthy Clippers team is probably slightly favored against the Rockets, but not finding a solution to Jordan’s misses from the line or to stopping James Harden might turn out to be very costly once again if they meet up in the playoffs.

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