Rapid Reaction: Rockets 98, Clippers 81

As the game clock ticked down, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin & Co. sat on the bench, wondering how a promising road trip ended in disaster for the Los Angeles Clippers.

When the Clippers saw this four-game road trip in the Southwest on their schedule, they knew it would be difficult. The San Antonio Spurs have the best record in the West, and the Houston Rockets and Dallas Mavericks are fighting for playoff seeding. The New Orleans Hornets have more talent than their record shows.

But still, the Clippers believed they’d go at least 3-1, if not 4-0, on the trip. Yet nothing on the trip went their way, including two heartbreaking losses in the waning seconds because of game-winning (Spurs) or game-tying shots (Mavericks).

So it was only fitting that the Clippers’ nightmarish road trip ended with a 98-81 loss at the hands of the Rockets, who were without their superstar shooting guard James Harden because of a right ankle sprain. The Clippers couldn’t find any rhythm offensively, shooting just 39.7 percent from the floor and finishing with more turnovers (18) than assists (15). Defensively, they were much worse, allowing five different Rockets to score in double figures.

Paul had 19 points, 7 assists, 5 rebounds and 3 steals, but besides that, no other Clipper had a particularly good game. Griffin had only 12 points and three rebounds, and while Jamal Crawford chipped in 15 points, he was only one of six from beyond the arc. Even worse, Matt Barnes left the game in the fourth quarter with a sprained left ankle.

With the loss, the Clippers (49-25) fell into fifth place in the Western Conference, although because they are the Pacific Division leaders, they technically cannot be seeded lower than fourth (if they finish fifth they just wouldn’t have home-court advantage). The Denver Nuggets (50-24) and Memphis Grizzlies each have a one-game advantage now in the loss column.

Here are three takeaways from tonight’s game:

Schedule loss?

Whenever an NBA team has to play four games in five nights, it’s commonly referred to as a “schedule loss.” It’s almost impossible to play two consecutive back-to-backs, separated by just one day, and win the fourth game. It showed tonight, as the Clippers were simply out of gas. They were routinely beat down the floor in transition, couldn’t stop the Rockets’ dribble penetration, and lacked the explosion that makes their offensive attack so potent. Every team suffers schedule losses, but the Clippers’ loss proves costly because it affects their playoff seeding.

Poor 3-point defense

The Rockets are perhaps the best 3-point shooting team in the NBA, leading the league in makes and attempts per game (they’re seventh in 3-point percentage). But without their leading scorer and facilitator, Harden, there’s no excuse for the Rockets to have gotten the amount of open looks that they did. Houston made a collective effort to share the wealth offensively (five players had between 11 and 15 points), spreading the Clippers out and finding the gaps in the defense, which usually led to a bevy of 3-pointers.

Playing the Rockets’ style

One of the problems the Clippers have had this season is playing to the level or style of their opponents -- DeAndre Jordan and Willie Green admitted so after a practice last week. And, unfortunately, that happened against the Rockets, as the Clippers shot just two fewer 3-pointers than the Rockets (22 to 24) and were dominated in points in the paint (48 to 26). The problem is that style suits Houston better than the Clippers, as they have better shooters and more experience playing that way.