Fouling and free throws taking over Clippers-Rockets series

The Clippers and Rockets might need a more suitable name for their playoff series than the Western Conference semifinals.

Just call it Hackathon.

Or hack-a-back-and-forth. The two teams combined to shoot 96 free throws Wednesday in Game 2 at the Toyota Center in Houston; a game the Rockets won 115-109. The Rockets scored 42 of their points from the free-throw line while evening the series at 1-1. 

The Rockets employed hack-a-DJ for DeAndre Jordan, and the Clippers used hack-a-howard and hack-a-smith on Dwight Howard and Josh Smith, respectively. But that record-setting free-throw bonanza wasn’t all hacking. It was also a lot of fouls.

"It makes it ugly. I think it’s something that we can do and both coaches are doing it," Doc Rivers said on a conference call on the hack-a strategy. "I know for a fact that neither coach likes doing it. It’s part of the strategy and until it is changed, we are going to continue to do it. It makes the game longer and obviously at times, in the San Antonio series for example, it works for you and at times it can backfire just because of the rhythm and the timing."

The Clippers weren’t happy about Wednesday’s free-throw disparity. The Rockets had a playoff record 64 free-throw attempts and a playoff-record for makes with 42. By comparison, the Clippers shot half the number of free throws — 32.

Rockets coach Kevin McHale joked about the disparity Thursday when talking to reporters at the team hotel.

"I heard them saying, ‘Well, they shot too many free throws.’ Well, quit hacking us," McHale said. "We shoot a lot of free throws when you decide that you’re just going to get in the penalty and start hacking everybody. You end up (with your opponent) shooting a lot of free throws when you put in your backup, backup center (Ekpe Udoh) to just grab guys."

Udoh didn’t even work up a sweat — not like he does with his pregame routine helping teammates get fired up – but did take his warmup jersey off twice just to intentionally foul Josh Smith, and then he was back to the bench.

The teams have combined to shoot 150 free throws in two games. Those officiating this series are giving their whistles quite a workout. The Clippers shot 30 free throws Monday in Game 1, Houston 24, so that game was just about even. Not so in Game 2.

Harden made all 15 of his free throws, but those were well-earned, as he would drive the lane and dish or take it to the basket.

"James (Harden) goes downhill and plays hard," McHale said. "There’s a lot of contact when James plays. I can show you every game, five where he clearly gets grabbed and they don’t call. But I mean, James runs down the floor. The referees are not trying to screw anybody. It’s a hard game to referee. I’m the worst referee in practices you’ve ever seen. I never blow my whistle. It’s a tough game to call. I don’t put too much into all that."

The Clippers are also playing without Chris Paul, who worked out Thursday on the court — following pool exercises the previous days — and is recovering from a strained left hamstring sustained in Game 7 of the Clippers’ first-round win against San Antonio. Paul hit the game-winning, last-second shot in that game and knew immediately he wouldn’t be able to play in this series.

He couldn’t play Wednesday, the day he turned 30, and it’s unclear whether he’ll be able to play Game 3 Friday at Staples Center. Game 4 is Sunday in Los Angeles.

The Clippers sure could use Paul in this series, along with improved free-throw shooting from Jordan. They got that in Game 2 as Jordan made his first four free throws and went 4-for-6 from the line.

Jordan even was whistled for his second foul — guarding Harden — 2 1/2 minutes into the game, and he said the final 9:30 of the first quarter. Imagine how many more times he could’ve been fouled. 

Seemingly everyone was in foul trouble.

Howard — a friend of Jordan’s who has given him advice on the hack-a-strategy — missed 13 of his 21 free throws. Howard is cheered emphatically when he makes free throws at the Toyota Center. He’ll likely be booed plenty at Staples Center. One thing many Clippers and Lakers fans agree on is their dislike for the former Lakers center.

Doc Rivers joked in the postgame press conference that the Rockets shot 117 free throws. He was only off by 21.

"They were more aggressive and some of it was that we intentionally fouled," Doc Rivers said. "I think that number is misleading. They still went to the line more than they should have but listen, they hit first all night, they were the instigator all night. They were aggressive and went to the free-throw line. That’s on us."

Matt Barnes, who has held his emotional play in check, earned a technical foul for bumping Harden after he fouled him. Barnes reportedly even said something to Harden’s mother, Monja Willis, and TMZ reported that Barnes apologized to her afterward.

Fouling gone foul.

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich employed the hack-a-DJ strategy early and often against the Clippers. During the regular season, Popovich sent Jordan to the line 28 times. You can see why the Clippers are pleased they can use the strategy, if they want, against another team.

Popovich and Rivers are good friends, and Popovich has apologized to Rivers after games for using the strategy because it’s ugly, but he said it’s part of the rules.

It’s a different beast when two teams are using the strategy. Wednesday’s game ended well after midnight Eastern Standard Time. Teams can’t run their offenses and it’s not a good look. But it’s within the rules, and it’s clear McHale and Rivers are playing that card.

Rivers joked before the series started that he and McHale had a truce and that they would either both use it or both not use it.

It looks like they’re both using it. Like it or not.

"You’re not going to win many games when the other team shoots 94 free throws, and they make more free throws than we even attempted," Blake Griffin said. "I don’t even know if we can equate that to intentionally fouling. I just think it was a poorly executed game from a lot of different standpoints."

But the hack-a-strategy is being executed early and often.

Just call it the hackathon.