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Small-ball exposed: Clippers lay waste to unorthodox Rockets strategy

The Houston Rockets were built on the fly.

The Los Angeles Clippers were built for the playoffs.

In a performance that could be a sign of postseason things to come, the Clippers laid waste to the Rockets’ small-ball system in a dominant 120-105 victory on Houston’s home court on Thursday. The final score didn’t reflect the reality of the game for Houston, which cut into a 30-point deficit largely in garbage time.

Leaning on their elite perimeter defense and size advantage on offense, the Clippers put a screeching halt to a strategy that’s seen surprising success since the Rockets eliminated players taller than 6-foot-8 from their lineup 14 games ago.

Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers found little resistance against a smaller Rockets lineup. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Clippers clamp down on Rockets’ strength

The Clippers opened up a 33-23 first-quarter lead and piled on from there as the Rockets’ primary weapon was neutralized by a defense sporting three of the best defenders in basketball in Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Patrick Beverley.

Houston finished 7-of-42 from 3-point distance and didn’t have any recourse inside against a larger Clippers frontcourt. Meanwhile the Clippers regularly looked inside to Leonard, Ivica Zubac and Montrezl Harrell on offense with success.

L.A.’s front court leads the way

Leonard led the way with 25 points, six rebounds and five assists. Harrell finished with 19 points and 10 rebounds, while the 7-foot Zubac tallied 17 points and 12 rebounds.

Russell Westbrook paced the Rockets with 29 points, 15 rebounds and five assists as James Harden struggled to 16 points and seven rebounds while shooting 4-of-17 from the field. The pair combined to finish 0-for-10 from 3-point distance, with Harden responsible for eight of the misses.

Houston had gone 10-3 since implementing its small-ball lineup, a move that was solidified by jettisoning Clint Capela to the Atlanta Hawks. But between Thursday’s ugly loss at home and Monday’s stunning loss to the New York Knicks, it may be hitting a wall.

Sign of things to come?

The Rockets surely won’t see many worse shooting nights than this in the regular season or the playoffs. But in a best-of-seven series against a team like the Clippers or the considerably larger Los Angeles Lakers, Houston will need to remain hot from distance to have a chance.

That’s a big ask against teams who rank among the league’s best in defensive rating.

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