The Los Angeles Clippers entered Monday night’s game against the Houston Rockets on a five-game winning streak. Their starters took over the game in the third quarter and led the Clippers to a huge win with big playoff seeding implications.
The Los Angeles Clippers looked to be facing an uphill battle in Monday night’s game against the Houston Rockets. The Rockets held the third-best record in basketball prior to the game.
Instead, the Clippers punished the Rockets with a 36-12 third quarter led almost entirely by LA’s starting crew. The win secured a fifth straight season of at least 50 wins for the Clippers, who have gotten hot at just the right time with the playoffs approaching.
Unfortunately for the Clippers, the Utah Jazz stayed even with them in the standings. Utah pulled out an upset win of their own with a 105-99 victory over the Golden State Warriors.
While the Clippers are in control of their own destiny in the race for the fourth seed, they will have to wait until tomorrow’s finale to figure out where they will start the playoffs.
Third Quarter Dominance
The Los Angeles Clippers held a four-point lead over the Rockets after the first half. The game had been close throughout, including a tie after one quarter. Given the explosive scoring of the Rockets’ offense, the Clippers had every right to fear a shaky start to the second half.
Instead, the Clippers dominated Houston from the moment the third quarter began. They allowed the Rockets just one point (on a technical free throw made by James Harden) in a six-minute span from Montrezl Harrell’s basket with 9:56 remaining to Trevor Ariza‘s layup with 3:38 left on the clock.
Their defense locked down the league’s second-best offense with solid switches and great help defense:
The Clippers may have shut down the Rockets’ offense, but they brought plenty of their own firepower. They were able to score effectively in the halfcourt while also doing major damage in transition:
While the Clippers did benefit from a terrible outing by Harden, this win was nonetheless a statement victory. If the Clippers hope to make a deep push in the playoffs, they will need to have this type of performance from their starters against the best teams in the league.
This game would not be the first time that the Los Angeles Clippers have been carried to a win by the brilliance and chemistry of their starting crew. The starting unit for the Clippers has arguably been more important to their success than any other starting lineup in the league.
Additionally, they have a net rating of 15.6 per NBA.com, a staggering jump from the team’s overall 4.1 net rating. That net rating is behind only the Warriors’ starting lineup among lineups with 250 or more minutes this season.
The starting group is clearly driven by the three All-Stars in Paul, Griffin and Jordan. Redick is also a large factor in their success, as his shooting touch and tireless work in running off screens helps create space for his teammates.
A New Hope
However, the most important change in the starting lineup this season has been the offensive improvement of Luc Mbah a Moute.
Mbah a Moute was one of the better players for the Clippers against the Rockets, as he put up 15 points on eight shots and locked down James Harden for most of the night.
Luc has played a far larger role in the offense this year than he did last season. After averaging only 2.8 shots per game last year, Mbah a Moute is up to 4.7 attempts per game. He has also increased his True Shooting percentage from 49.8 percent to a career high 57.7 percent.
Much of that improvement in efficiency can be tied to his vastly improved three-point shot. Luc is nailing 38.3 percent of his shots from deep. He is taking most of those long bombs from the corners and is shooting 41.7 percent on those looks.
His ability to make shots from deep opens up the Clippers’ offense:
Mbah a Moute is in the lineup almost entirely for defensive reasons. He is an elite stopper on the wing who can also switch onto big men in a pinch. His Defensive RPM of 2.19 is ninth in the league among power forwards.
While listing Luc as a power forward is somewhat anachronistic given that he has spent most of his time at small forward this season, his defensive impact is still palpable.
Luc’s newfound ability to shoot allows him to do just enough on offense to allow him to stay on the floor. The Clippers have been searching for a fifth starter since J.J. Redick arrived in Los Angeles.
They may have lucked into the perfect fit in Mbah a Moute after his surprising growth as a 30-year-old veteran.
The Los Angeles Clippers still have something to play for in the final game of the season. They are tied with the Jazz at 50-31. However, Los Angeles won three of four in the season series against the Jazz.
The Clippers hold the tiebreaker heading into the last game of the regular season for both teams.
The Jazz will play the San Antonio Spurs in their last game. While the Spurs have nothing to play for in this game and may rest their starters, their potent bench may be enough to eke out a win in Utah.
The Clippers will play the Sacramento Kings in their last game. The Kings have every incentive to lose this game and improve their lottery chances. Thus, they might decide to sit most of their veteran players and see what their young prospects can do.
The Clippers will claim home-court advantage with either a win or a Utah loss. Thus, they control their own destiny heading into the last game of the season.
Given their struggles with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin out, they should be ecstatic to have such a good chance at locking up a top-four seed.
The Clippers picked a great time to pull off their second-best stretch of games this season. The shortening of playoff rotations plays right into their favor, as their starting lineup continues to shine and will see even more playing time in the postseason.