Clippers, Rockets prioritize rest as December ends

Dec 26, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Clippers guard J.J. Redick (4), forward Blake Griffin (32) and guard Chris Paul (3) on the bench in the second half of the game against the Denver Nuggets at Staples Center. Nuggets won 106-102. ( Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports)

HOUSTON — With the calendar set to flip to 2017 and teams throughout the league approaching the midpoint of their schedules, coaches are making concerted efforts to maintain the health and vigor of their heavy-rotation players.

For the Los Angeles Clippers, who will visit the Houston Rockets on Friday night at Toyota Center, it means deferring to the big picture and avoiding further risk to hobbled starters.

Clippers guard J.J. Redick has missed two games with a hamstring injury, including a 102-98 loss at the New Orleans Pelicans on Wednesday night despite his improved shooting and running pregame. His backcourt mate, Chris Paul, returned from a three-game hiatus due to a hamstring injury and posted 21 points, eight rebounds and six assists in the Clippers’ fourth straight loss.

Paul was not on the floor down the stretch of a tightly-contested game as Clippers coach Doc Rivers opted to adhere strictly to a minute restriction for Paul. Even with the game in the balance and his team already down two other starters (forward Blake Griffin remains sidelined following knee surgery), Rivers resisted the urge to insert Paul into the game in pursuit of a victory. One win in late-December was not worth the risk of losing Paul for an extended stretch of games given the team results of the three previous games without him.

“He wasn’t going to play anymore,” Rivers said of Paul, who played 30 minutes against the Pelicans. “It didn’t matter. One step and he’s hurt and you’re yelling at me for keeping him on the floor.”

Ranked fifth in the NBA in both offensive and defensive rating, good health appears to be the only thing keeping the Clippers from elite status.

The Rockets (24-9) understand the value of preserving their regulars, a big reason why their starters sat in the fourth quarters of back-to-back blowout wins over the Phoenix Suns and Dallas Mavericks on Monday and Tuesday.

With the Rockets hosting the Clippers and New York Knicks on Friday and Saturday, it will mark their sixth set of back-to-back games this month and fourth over the past two weeks. With their 123-107 win over the Mavericks, the Rockets improved to 7-0 in the second game of back-to-backs this season.

After leading by as many as 34 points in their 16-point home win over the Suns on Monday night, the Rockets led by as many as 29 before cruising to victory at Dallas. Establishing those sizable advantages has enabled Houston coach Mike D’Antoni to rest his high-minutes starters, an added bonus given that Houston is without center Clint Capela (leg) and played against the Mavericks without guard Patrick Beverley (thigh). Beverley is expected to return to the lineup against the Clippers.

“I like it a lot,” Rockets forward Ryan Anderson said of the late-game rest. “It’s important for us obviously. That means we’re starting games our pretty well. We’re handling our business.

“At the beginning of the season there were stretches where we let a lead go. We’d start the third quarter cold or not ready to go. The last few nights to be able to play a complete, full game and sit out the fourth is huge.”