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Saturday, March 3, 2012
What to watch: Clippers-Rockets

By Arash Markazi

Clippers (21-13) vs. Houston Rockets (21-16) at Toyota Center, 6 p.m. PT

Five storylines to track:

1. Breaking bad: Before the Clippers left Los Angeles for their six-game road trip, they dismissed any notion that they had gotten into a rut when it came to closing out games late. After finding ways to pull out close games earlier in the season, the Clippers had seen late leads vanish against San Antonio, Golden State and Minnesota. “If this happens in Sacramento and the next game, then I have something to worry about,” Clippers guard Chris Paul said. “It's something that can be corrected. ... I'm not panicking.” Well, it didn’t happen against Sacramento, but it did happen against Phoenix and now the Clippers have lost four of their last six games and are 6-6 since losing Chauncey Billups for the season last month. If the Clippers don’t turn things around against Houston on Sunday, there will be plenty for Paul and his teammates to be worried about at the midway point of their 10-day road trip.

2. Bench rising: After getting outscored by the Timberwolves’ bench 72-11 on Thursday, the Clippers’ much-maligned bench has stepped up their production in the last two games. The Clippers bench, which is averaging 22.9 points this season, scored 32 points against Phoenix and 41 points against Sacramento. The biggest difference has been the increased output from Clippers forward Kenyon Martin, who is shooting 61.1 percent from the field and averaging 11.0 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2.0 blocks in the last two games. Clippers guard Mo Williams, who is a candidate for the Sixth Man of the Year award, is averaging 15.5 points and 4.0 assists over the last two games while shooting 63.6 percent (7-of-11) from beyond the arc and 44.4 percent (12-of-27) from the field.

3. Second-half switch: Although the Clippers have failed to close out games recently, the reason they have even been in most of their games has been the play of Paul in the second half. In the last seven games, Paul has scored 59.1 percent of his points in the second half. During that span he has scored 94 of his 159 points in the final 24 minutes of the game. Paul scored a season-high 36 points at the beginning of this stretch against Portland and scored 12 of his 16 points against Phoenix on Friday in the last two quarters. Paul says he likes to get his teammates involved in the first half, but he may have to spread his scoring out more evenly so the Clippers  don’t have to rely on him so much late in games.

4. Butler’s not doing it: In the Clippers' last seven games Caron Butler's production has dropped off considerably from his form earlier in the season. He is  averaging just 8.1 points per game during that stretch while shooting 32.3 percent (23-of-71 FG) from the field and 11.7 percent (2-of-17) from beyond the arc. Not coincidentally, the Clippers are 3-4 in their last seven games. Butler had averaged 15.3 points through his first 25 games with the Clippers while shooting 44 percent from the field and 38.6 percent from 3-point range and hit double-figures in 22 of those 25 games. Since Billups was lost for the season last month, however, Butler simply hasn’t been the same. He no longer gets the same open looks on the weakside he did when Billups was penetrating the gaps and causing defenses to respect him.

5. A thin line: One of the biggest reasons the Clippers have struggled to score in their last two games is they have struggled just to get to the free-throw line. Against Sacramento and Phoenix, the Clippers shot a combined 17 free throws. Just as surprising as that number, however, is that the Clippers, normally a poor free-throw shooting team, hit 16 of those free throws (94.1 percent). The bigger problem is that the Clippers’ opponents have shot 35 more free throws than them during this stretch. Since the 1985-86 season, the Clippers have attempted nine or fewer foul shots in a game just 15 times, and never before in back-to-back games. The Clippers are 1-14 when shooting under 10 free throws, with their lone win coming against Sacramento on Thursday.