Houston (CBS HOUSTON) – The 2015-16 Houston Rockets, same as it ever was.
By now, midway through March in a six-month season, the Rockets appear to be nothing more, nothing less than a .500 team.
That maxim was on display Wednesday night in the Toyota Center, as the Clippers blunted Houston’s recent momentum in a 122-106 blowout — a frustrating effort in a game the Rockets (34-34) desperately needed for playoff positioning hopes.
“It was obvious,” said Jason Terry, “They kicked our butts in every facet of the game.”
A win would have tied Portland for the No. 6 seed and put Houston within four games of the ailing Grizzlies for an outside shot at the fifth slot.
Instead, the Clippers put up 35 in the first quarter, led by 22 at halftime (72-50) and were never seriously threatened by a turnover-prone Rocketw bunch. It even came on the second night of a brutal Texas back-to-back, after Los Angeles lost at San Antonio on Tuesday.
“We can’t come out against anybody and allow them to be as effective running their stuff and doing what they do well,” said head coach J.B. Bickerstaff. “We have to be more disruptive than that.”
Simply put, the Clippers look like a team ready to be a top-four seed in the playoffs while Houston keeps desperately floundering.
Dwight Howard and co. had no answer for DeAndre Jordan inside, and Jordan threw down a handful of massive, crowd-deflating dunks. The Rockets defense was slow on rotations — as they’ve been known to be this season — and the Jordan-Chris Paul combo burned them. Paul finished with 15 points and 16 assists while Jordan had a punishing 23 points and 16 boards.
“You’ve got to give them one or the other,” said Corey Brewer. “They can’t [both] be going like that.”
The Rockets briefly cut a 24-point deficit down to 11 late in the fourth quarter, but a J.J. Redick three and a couple Paul runners held Houston at bay. Redick was 5-of-9 beyond the arc and finished with 25 points.
A decent bench effort made the final score look better, as Montrezl Harrell flushed a couple dunks, Michael Beasley dropped 16 points and Terry drained some momentum-boosting buckets.
It wasn’t near enough, especially on a night when Houston’s stars struggled. James Harden tallied 33 points, but that was window dressing for a sloppy night. He was often lost on defense and turned the ball over eight times.
“Personally, I had a terrible game,” Harden said. “Offensively, defensively, it wasn’t going well for me. I guess it goes like that sometimes.”
Howard was also a relative non-factor, only taking four shots apiece from the field and foul line en route to a six-point, seven-rebound total.
For all the offensive lethargy, Houston clawed its way into triple digits with ease. Instead, it was the defense that had no answer for LA. When the Clips finally slowed down late, the Rockets granted a couple easy fouls. The fast-break defense was non-existent in the first half, and the visitors shot a streaky 57 percent from the field.
“I think it was communication and being in on the weak side, and all the little things,” Howard said of the poor switches.
It was another sobering reminder that, for all the good the Rockets have done over the past week, there’s still a big hill to climb. Not just to be a contender on the level they were last season, but even to be merely competitive in a first-round series with the Western Conference’s elite.
The players are well aware of the slow starts that have turned into a season-long race toward the middle of the league.
“We’ve been doing that all season, consistently, getting off to bad starts and not playing until it’s desperation time,” Terry said.
“At some point, something has to change… That’s not for us to make, though. Until that change happens, you may see a pattern or you may not. Until then, we’re just going to continue to talk about it.”