Clippers blitz Rockets in hack-fueled horror show to win Game 4, take 3-1 lead

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Clint Capela signals as he intentionally fouls DeAndre Jordan. (Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
Clint Capela signals as he intentionally fouls DeAndre Jordan. (Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

Just three minutes and 40 seconds into Game 4 on Sunday night, Kevin McHale gave the order for his Houston Rockets to begin intentionally fouling Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan. After intentionally sending Jordan to the line seven times in the first quarter alone — six more hacks than the sour-shooting big man had seen in his first 10 playoff games this postseason — McHale told TNT's Tracy Wolfson that he decided to start hacking early to "change things up" and try to take the Clips out of their game.

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It worked for a little while, as the Rockets led through the early stages of the second quarter. But as the free-throw attempts piled up, McHale's gambit seemed to backfire, as the Rockets lost both their early shotmaking rhythm and any semblance of belief that they could stop the Clippers' offense without hugging Jordan immediately after an L.A. inbound. And in the third quarter, Doc Rivers' crew proved the shaken Rockets right.

The Clippers outclassed and demolished the Rockets at Staples Center on Sunday night, earning a 128-95 win — their second straight blowout victory at home — to take a 3-1 lead in this best-of-seven Western Conference semifinals matchup. The Clips can close the series out in Houston, and move on to the conference finals for the first time in franchise history, with a win in Game 5 on Tuesday.

Houston will need a significantly stouter effort than it managed in Games 3 and 4 in order to stave off elimination. For most of Sunday's second half, though, it looked as if the Rockets had already started packing for summer vacation.

The early intentional fouling drained any excitement and rhythm from this game slowly and stubbornly. The first two quarters took nearly an hour and a half to play, thanks in large part to Houston sending Jordan to the line 28 times before intermission, a new NBA playoff record for free-throw attempts in a half. He made 10, so, yep — just about as brutal to watch as it sounds.

The Clips ensured we'd skip any close-game drama, too, coming out of the locker room with a monstrous third quarter that made the ending academic, a mere matter of bookkeeping with the outcome already decided.

L.A. responded to the Rockets' attempts to junk up the game by persevering and continuing to run their offense, with devastating results. J.J. Redick made sharp cuts off screens and canned wide-open jumpers, scoring 15 of his 18 points on 4-for-4 3-point shooting in the frame. And after spending the first half shuffling his way to the stripe, Jordan finally found opportunities to fly free, thanks to once-again-healthy Chris Paul torching the Rockets' on-ball defense while Houston's off-ball helpers somehow lost track of the 6-foot-11 spring-heeled behemoth:

... and the Rockets still having absolutely no answers for the Clippers' double-high screen set, with Jordan and Blake Griffin pinning Paul's defender and giving the All-Star point guard all kinds of time and space to create high-percentage looks like this spectacular one-hand alley-oop slam by Jordan:

... and the Clips giving the Rockets a taste of their own high-screen, short-roll, big-to-big-passing medicine on this slick sequence that saw Paul set up Griffin to set up Jordan for the flush off a baseline cut:

Jordan finished with a game-high 26 points, making six of his seven field goals and, um, 14 of his 34 free throws. He added 17 rebounds, two steals, two assists and one heck of a block on this Corey Brewer layup attempt:

While the Clippers stayed the course and carved up the Rockets' defense in the third, Houston seemed to sleepwalk through its offensive opportunities. Barring some occasional bursts of shot-making inspiration from veteran Jason Terry, possession after Rockets possession tended to devolve into All-Star shooting guard James Harden isolating against an L.A. defender and either barreling into the paint to try to draw contact or settling for a stepback jumper while his four teammates just stood idly by.

Houston shot just 7 for 21 from the field in the third quarter. The Clippers scorched the nets — 52 percent from the floor, 6 for 10 from 3-point land and 11 for 15 from the line, with Jordan making four of his six freebies — to the tune of 43 points, which made Sunday's third stanza the highest-scoring quarter in Clippers playoff history. The previous top mark? Forty-one, logged in the second quarter of Game 2 of this very series. (Those represent the Rockets' two worst defensive quarters of the season, by the way.)

But while Houston came back to win that game, they went down meekly on Sunday. That's somewhat ironic, considering center Dwight Howard seemed hellbent on setting an aggressive, physical tone from the opening tip.

He wrestled with Jordan, got into it with Matt Barnes and even got a technical foul for getting in the face of referee Danny Crawford after picking up his second personal early in the first quarter:

That would not be the worst thing that happened to Danny Crawford on Sunday, thanks to an overly excited Corey Brewer:

But Dwight's dedication to proving that he wouldn't be outmuscled by the Clippers seemed to play right into L.A.'s hands. Foul trouble limited Howard to just 18 1/2 minutes of floor time, and helped render him largely ineffective when he was out there, as he chipped in just seven points, six rebounds and one assist with two turnovers, while shooting 1 for 6 at the foul line.

Howard refused to let Griffin put an immortal exclamation point on his crummy evening with this hard third-quarter foul:

... but Griffin would get the last laugh, finishing through body contact for an early fourth and-one that both put a capper on his 21-point, eight-rebound, three-assist evening and gave Howard his sixth foul.

A frustrated Howard would also pick up his second technical after having words with referee Ron Garretson, earning an ejection on top of his disqualification, meaning he was, I guess, double-special-super given the heave-ho.

With Howard off his game and Harden struggling to play his — a quieter-than-it-looks 21 points on 5-for-12 shooting from the field and a 9-for-10 mark at the line, which he thinks seems awfully low given how the Clips are defending him — the Rockets lacked ... well, take your pick. They lacked spark. They lacked conviction. They lacked the desperation that you'd expect from a team facing a looming 3-1 deficit.

The Clippers were quicker to loose balls and more opportunistic off offensive rebounds, picking up 13 second-chance points to Houston's six. They were determined to ram the ball down the Rockets' throats off misses, making Houston pay for poor floor balance and often-nonexistent transition defense.

Once again, Austin Rivers made a major impact, sparking an 8-0 second-quarter run by pushing the pace after bad Houston shots. He'd finish with 12 points on 5-for-9 shooting with five rebounds, two blocks and a steal in 24 minutes, again helping his father keep Paul from overextending as he works his way back from the strained left hamstring that cost him the first two games of this series. The captain chipped in a double-double in his 26 minutes of floor time, scoring 15 points on 4-for-9 shooting and dishing 12 assists against just one turnover.

Paul and Griffin, not Harden, are controlling the terms of engagement in this series. Howard seems to be on tilt. The Clippers' much-maligned bench is producing more, and more regularly, than the Rockets'. And now, even putting Jordan on the line 34 times isn't enough to get Houston over. If you're wondering what else the Rockets have to offer that could possibly put them back into this series, you're not alone:

Time and again on Sunday, the Clippers threw haymakers at the Rockets. A 13-5 run late in the first quarter. A 12-0 run early in the second, bookended by an 11-0 spurt late. The 29-7 strafing to start the third. Eventually, Houston just slumped on its stool and refused to come out for the next round.

Here's hoping that, come Tuesday, the Rockets have decided that if they're going to go out, they're going to go out swinging. And, if we're lucky, not hacking.

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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

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