#2 – Houston Rockets
Well, if the Rockets were disappointed by the Game 1 outcome, they have every reason to be flat-out embarrassed by the 124-99 result of Game 3 in Los Angeles. Not only has Houston failed to even resemble the team that pretty much dismantled their in-state rival Dallas Mavericks in the opening round, they could very well be down 0-3 to a team that lacks a ton of depth and was without their starting point guard for the first two games of the series. James Harden was good (25 points, 11 assists), but was a far cry from the spectacular level that he played at for most of the season.
Outside of Game 2, he hasn’t been nearly as aggressive about attacking the defender and has managed only a total of 11 free throw attempts in Games 1 and 3 combined. It’s one thing to lead or even carry a team throughout a wildly successful regular season (given the circumstances), but even Harden knows his game must be elevated the further the Rockets advance in the playoffs. They need Harden to be the unequivocal best player on the court in this series and to this point he simply has been unable to answer that call.
It also wouldn’t hurt if Corey Brewer and Josh Smith were somehow able to return to the level of play that helped propel the Rockets past the Mavericks, as the two have really struggled against a somewhat maligned Clippers reserve unit after averaging nearly 40 points combined in the previous series. Across the board, Houston’s players are going to have to take a collective look in the mirror in order to determine just how badly they want to compete for this series.
#3 – Los Angeles Clippers
Regardless of whether you want to believe in these Clippers as potential contenders for the West crown and the title, it is abundantly apparent they truly believe in one another. To a man, it is very clear that the team has bought into the “us against the world” mentality it appears Doc Rivers prefers for his teams to have, and they continue to play the best basketball we’ve seen from them as a collective unit.
Chris Paul may have been noticeably slowed by that sore hamstring, but his mere presence on the court seemed to really galvanize players like J.J. Redick (31 points on 11-14 from the field), Austin Rivers (25 points on 10-13 from the field, off the bench) and even Jamal Crawford (12 points and six steals). Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan combined for 29 rebounds and have definitely gotten the better of the frontcourt match-up as well.
The Clippers may very well be the better team in this series, but they have to know the Rockets are not likely to simply accept such an embarrassing loss without putting forth a real fight in Game 4. The trouble for Houston is, this Clippers team was battle-tested by what turned into a grueling but fantastic seven-game series with the San Antonio Spurs and appear to have developed some never-before-seen resiliency and understanding of the type of unified effort it takes to win a big game.
Who Wins Game 4?
Unless Houston’s shooters and role players are able to knock down their shots, the Rockets simply look over-matched in this series. Look for the Clippers to overcome Houston’s response and really apply pressure in putting the Rockets in an absolute “must-win” situation in Game 5 back in Houston.
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