Posted by lethalweapon3 in lethalweapon3's Pre-Game Preview Blog, 20 December 2014 - · 36 views
“Killing them softly with my voice, killing them softly…”
They’re no longer seen as the ‘Y’, among vowels.
After dispatching the media-heralded Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers in consecutive games, the 18-7 Atlanta Hawks are not, anymore, the “oh, yeah, them, too, sometimes, maybe” team among the shortlist of Eastern Conference contenders. To fully disassociate themselves with the East’s also-rans, though, they have to do something more.
Beat some more teams from the Western Conference. Occasionally, top the really good ones. Preferably, outperform them in their buildings.
The Hawks get some bites at that apple before racing the L.A. Clippers back here from Texas for a game on Tuesday. The East’s third-seed gets Monta Ellis and the Mavs on Monday night, and tonight they get the West’s 4-seed: Dwight Howard, James Harden and the Houston Rockets (8:00 PM Eastern, SportSouth, CSN Houston).
A few weeks ago, first-place Toronto similarly dusted Cleveland, by 17, at the Q, with DeMar DeRozan and buoyed by a career-high 36 points from our old friend, Lou Williams. Most of Toronto’s gaudy 7-2 out-of-conference record has come from a strong homestand, primarily against the patsies of the West. The Raptors hung on to beat the Suns at home, and pulled away in Toronto from a Grizzlies team that was shorthanded because of the flu. But they have yet to pull off a major victory west of the Mississippi, their two wins coming against a Demarcus Cousins-less Sacramento and free-falling Utah. They get a big Western road trip going next week.
Southeast Division-leader Washington is 6-1 against the West, including a big win to stem the Clippers’ winning streak last week, but all of those wins have come at the Verizon Center. Their road conquests to date haven’t exactly been a Murderer’s Row: Orlando (twice), the Knicks, Indiana, Milwaukee, and Miami last night. They’ll follow Toronto’s path with a West Coast swing the following week.
In Atlanta’s sole West Coast road challenge so far, they were about an ounce of sanity from Pero Antić away from ending their 17-year hex in San Antonio. After making a big splash in Cleveland on Wednesday, tonight, the Hawks will get all they can handle out of a guy who may deserve to be the frontrunner for MVP.
Terrence Jones (nerve issue in lower leg) has missed significant time, Dwight Howard has recovered after undergoing a PRP procedure in his knee, Patrick Beverley sat out for weeks with hamstring issues, and free agent pickup Trevor Ariza (14.1 PPG, 36.4 FG%, 33.7 3FG%) has played about as poorly on offense as the last time Houston acquired him. Were the Rockets (19-6) about to allow other teams to take their place in the Western Conference standings? Not by the hair of James Harden’s chinny-chin-chin.
The league-leader in scoring (26.7 PPG, #1 in NBA), and a near Top-10 passer (6.7 APG, 2nd among NBA non-point guards), Harden has carried this team on his back, and kept them among the league’s elite, as well as any other NBA superstar. To the surprise of no one, Harden bulldozes his way to the charity stripe, with a league-high 32.5% of his points coming off of free throws. Without a point guard that’s strong on offensive execution, it’s Harden who is pulling off coach Kevin McHale’s pick-and-roll-heavy offensive schemes.
But what is perhaps the most impressive element of The Bearded One’s play this season? He’s apparently committed not to have anyone produce another YouTube mix of his notoriously lackadaisical defensive efforts. His 1.9 steals per game ranks seventh in the league, and that’s part of what has James Harden – James Harden – now in the league’s Top-20 for defensive rating (min. 15 min/game and 20 games played).
For kicks-and-giggles, guess who’s #1 in the NBA for defensive rating, with those qualifiers included? Your friend, and mine, Atlanta’s Pero Antić. Also in the Top-20 list? Thabo Sefolosha. Somebody seems to know what they’re doing.
Who is keeping Paul Millsap’s spot warm at the top of the league ranks in steals per game? Corey Brewer (2.3 SPG, #1 in NBA), who comes in from the cold in Minnesota to buttress a beleaguered Houston bench corps. With Harden, Ariza, Beverley, and now Brewer grasping at every loose ball in and around Clutch City, and with Howard (2.5 BPG, 2nd in NBA) swatting away any scorers that manage to make it into the paint, the Rockets will look a lot like the Sixers defensively, except with actual NBA-quality talent.
Opponents of the Rockets must expect a high-paced affair featuring gobs and gobs of turnovers. Unlike the laissez-faire approach in the Cavalier backcourt, Dennis Schröder (4.0 TOs per 100 plays, 3rd most among NBA backups, likely to start for Jeff Teague again tonight) and Shelvin Mack will be dealing with a dogged defensive-minded player in Beverley who will be pressing all the way up the court. On the good side, the Rockets will give it right back to you, as demonstrated most often by Harden (4.2 TO/game, 2nd in NBA), and Howard (3.2 TO/game, 2nd among NBA centers).
Only the Sixers have a higher turnover ratio than Houston’s 17.5 TOs per 100 possessions, and only the Sixers, Bucks, and Brewer’s old team, the Timberwolves, produce more steals per-48 than the Rockets (8.8), the Hawks not far behind (8.6 steals per 48 minutes, 6th in NBA). Conversely, Houston gives up the most points off of turnovers (18.7 opponent PPG off TOs, 4th most in NBA) of any playoff contender. Guess who leads the NBA in the percentage of his own points off of turnovers? There’s that man again – Sefolosha (27.3%). Whichever team is controlling the ball and executing their offense more like a well-oiled machine will be the team with the lead.
Howard has shown no signs of slowing down (22.7 PPG, 14.0 RPG, 3.3 BPG in his last 3 games) after his knee procedure, but he did take some time out of Thursday’s home loss in New Orleans to relieve pain in one of those giant gears he calls his shoulders.
The Rox take 41.3% of their shots from beyond the 3-point line, and no other NBA team, not even the Hawks (30.9% of FGAs are threes, 5th in NBA) have more than a third of their shots from that distance. While the Rockets aren’t glaring-red-hot from that range (34.1 3FG%, 18th in NBA), perimeter defense by the Hawk guards will need to be tight, as Al Horford and the Hawks’ frontcourt will have their hands full holding Howard and the Houston bigs (28.7 O-Reb%, 2nd in NBA) off the glass.
Horford (60.4 FG% last three games) was a nominee for Player of the Week last week, and he’ll have another shot at it again if he can stay at-par offensively with Howard for his third-straight 20-plus scoring effort. Al won’t have the joy of a cushy defender like Kevin Love waiting in the paint, but his mid-range game has been strong enough that it will put Howard in a pick-your-poison position of either stepping out to challenge Horford or staying at home to help Donatas Motiejunas with Paul Millsap and the Hawks’ paint cutters. Atlanta is now 18-1 (the one loss to Charlotte in OT) when Millsap finishes his night with a plus-minus of zero or better, 0-6 otherwise.
Depth was a big issue for Houston coming into the season. Injuries pressing unseasoned reserves (Motiejunas, undrafted rookie big man Tarik Black, Isaiah Canaan) into major action has exacerbated the issue, leaving guys like new-daddy Jason Terry (2.0 3FGs per game, 40.6 FG%) and rookie forward Kostas Papanikolaou in heavier-than-ideal rotation. Brewer’s 10.5 PPG (41.8 FG%, 19.5 3FG%) with Minnesota wasn’t strong but it’s good enough for a Rockets backup corps that scores 21.4 PPG on 36.4 FG% and 61.0 FT%, all NBA lows. The first points for a non-starting Rocket against the Pelicans on Thursday came with just five minutes left in the third period, and there were no free throws attempted by Rocket reserves the entire game.
Brewer will be particularly helpful for the bench defensive efficiency, which based on hoopsstats.com metrics has been worse than everyone’s other than Cleveland’s reserves. Mike Scott (15 points against the Cavs on Wednesday) and Mack (career-high 24 points and 6-for-6 3FGs on Wednesday) have the potential to be major difference makers again tonight.
Let’s Go Hawks!