Posted by lethalweapon3 in lethalweapon3's Pre-Game Preview Blog, 03 March 2015 - · 24 views
“What? But I was only trying to squash a fly!”
Ow! That’s gotta hurt!
The Houston Rockets suddenly have to face the top team in the NBA, the Atlanta Hawks, tonight at the Highlight Factory (7:30 PM Eastern, SportSouth, NBATV) without the services of MVP candidate and NBA-leading scorer James Harden for the first time all season.
That’s all because The Bearded One, while struggling for possession of a basketball, got just a little teste.
Specifically, Harden took a jab at the royal huckleberries of That Other King James, during Sunday’s two-point victory over visiting Cleveland. Any attempt to go Roshambo, especially against one of the league’s sacred cows, is usually enough to earn an NBA baller at least a one-game suspension. Harden got no clemency from the fine folks up in Secaucus.
Houston (41-18, 3rd in the Western Conference) will try to soldier on without either Harden (season-high 14 assists, but 5-for-16 FGs vs. ATL on Dec. 20) or Dwight Howard, who has missed over a month following a bone marrow procedure for his achy knee but should be returning soon. Winning big games without their star players ought to Harden the resolve of this shorthanded bunch, as they continue fighting for first-round homecourt advantage in the West.
The Rockets swept all five games during their Toyota Center homestand. But they get somewhat Mr. Hyde-y once they hit the road, where they lost their last two (at the Clippers before the All-Star Break, in Dallas after the Break). Opponents have averaged just 95.9 PPG in Clutch City (42.9 opponent FG%, NBA-low 28.3 opponent 3FG%, NBA-high 18.0 opponent TOs per game), but 103.9 PPG when the Rockets have to hit the road. Worse, Houston has allowed 110+ points in seven of their last nine road games, including each of their last four.
With mid-season newcomers Corey Brewer, Josh Smith (thought you were done seeing him, eh?), and K.J. McDaniels joining the defensively-improved Harden, scrappy point guard Patrick Beverley, Trevor Ariza and Dwight Howard, Houston (99.7 defensive rating, 3rd in NBA, just ahead of Atlanta’s 99.8) has enough tools at full strength to shut anyone down. But the lax effort in away games has to be disconcerting for head coach Kevin McHale. Without Harden, will there be enough offensive Rocket-power to keep up for 48 minutes against a well-rested Hawks squad? If not, what can McHale do to keep his team locked in all night on the defensive end?
The top-two scorers for Houston entering tonight’s contest are Ariza (12.6 PPG, 38.3 FG%) and Brewer (12.0 PPG, 42.7 FG%). Neither are great shooters, nor are Smith (44.2 FG%; 32.3 3FG%), Beverley (37.9 FG%, 36.0 3FG%), Jason Terry (41.2 FG%, 38.4 3FG%), rookie Kostas Papanikolaou (35.4 FG%, 29.8 3FG%), or newcomer Pablo Prigioni (40.9 season FG%).
The magnetic effects of Harden’s offense and Howard’s rebounding usually keeps the other Rockets’ offensive flaws from being laid bare. With that duo sapping most of the usage out of the ball, Josh is in almost a perfect predicament, coming off the bench like Terry with very little pressure. Will Smoove (44.3 FT% in Houston) try to put the team on his shoulders and single-handedly carry them to victory with his offense? If he tries to go full Smoove, Houston will have problems.
Houston’s offensive strength is the ability to avoid settling for inefficient mid-range jumpers. They’re the only NBA team that takes less than ten mid-range shots (8.7) per game, just a little over half of the Hawks’ 17.1 attempts (although, on an NBA-high 43.3 FG%, thanks to Al Horford) which rank 4th-fewest in the league. Instead, Houston lives at the three-point line, taking an NBA-high 6.2 shots from the left corner and a league-high 5.2 shots from the right, while only Golden State takes more shots beyond the arc (22.2 per game).
Still, their inefficiency in striking nylon can be a problem (22nd in 3FG% above-the-arc) when they’re not able to get enough extra chances. During a 104-97 loss to the Hawks in Houston this past December, the Rockets shot just 15-for-43 from three-point range, on 17 more shots than Atlanta, and did not fare much better inside the arc. Every Rocket aside from Dwight shot 12-for-33 on two-pointers, including 4-for-16 in the paint beyond three feet from the rim. Getting eleven more offensive rebounds than the Hawks’ four didn’t make much difference.
As the Rockets’ bombs are bursting in air, Kyle Korver, DeMarre Carroll, and Kent Bazemore must balance patrolling the corners with helping the Hawks’ bigs seal the Rockets off of the offensive glass, particularly Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas. After missing nearly three months to deal with nerve issues in his leg, Jones has worn off the rust and has his starting gig back, averaging 18.5 PPG (60.4 FG%), 10.5 RPG (4.8 offensive), and 2.0 BPG in his last four games. Motiejunas gained the trust of McHale and has moved from the starting power forward to center after Howard’s injury. He has decent post moves (including a nice hook shot) but also likes to stretch the floor, averaging 15.0 PPG while shooting 52.8 FG% and 60.0 3FG% in his last three starts.
Hawks head coach Mike Budenohlzer’s gambit paid off on Saturday, allowing Horford (17 points and 13 rebounds vs. ORL last Friday) some stay-at-home time while giving Jeff Teague, Carroll and Pero Antić time to rest their minor injuries. That gave Dennis Schröder (16 points, ten assists), Bazemore (15 points, 3 steals), and John Jenkins (12 points, 7 rebounds) time to shine as Atlanta kept Miami at arm’s length right through the final buzzer.
Collectively, the guard trio sunk 6-of-8 three-pointers, and was more than enough to offset Dwyane Wade, a hampered Goran Dragic and an erratic Mario Chalmers. The gap could have been bigger if Shelvin Mack (0-for-7 FGs) had played within the rhythm of the offense. Perhaps most impressive was the way the shorthanded Hawks unit forced a season-high 23 turnovers out of Miami.
Teague (last six games, 40.0 FG%, 11.8 PPG and 5.5 APG) will seek out a measure of revenge against NBA All-Defensive Second-Teamer Beverley, who came from way behind to oust Teague with a three-pointer during the All-Star Weekend’s Skills Challenge. Teague crawled out of his post-All-Star offensive funk with a strong second-half performance (17 points) to finish off the Magic on Friday. Atlanta will want “Teague Time” to start on-time in the first quarter and, unlike the Skills Challenge, to last all the way to the end. He’ll need to make sound decisions coming off of screens from the equally-rested Horford and Antić.
Atlanta often comes out looking like they could use a SnickersTM when they get at least a couple of rest days. Dallas galloped to a 34-22 first-quarter lead on the Hawks (two days rest) last Wednesday, before Atlanta turned on the jets. Coming out of the All-Star Break, Toronto blew out the Hawks before seeming to fall off a cliff in the games that followed. Back in January, before the Hawks (two days rest) beat the breaks off Brooklyn, the Nets started out with an early 21-13 lead. The Hawks were running in mud against Milwaukee after the Christmas break, allowing 58 first-half points. And the Lakers rang up 67 first-half points on the Hawks (two days rest) in November.
Like tonight’s contest, all of those games were at home. The three starters that benefited from sitting out the Orlando game are the ones who can set the tone early against Houston by controlling the pace and the ball (forcing more turnovers), and by taking saner shots, the latter of which shouldn’t be hard to do against Houston without Harden around.
In Houston on Dec. 20, Korver (4-for-8 3FGs) and Carroll (3-for-5 3FGs), and even Antić (2-for-3 3FGs) had little problem getting shots off. Schröder (3-for-9 FGs while filling in for the injured Jeff Teague) and Mack (nine points and four assists) were able to drive and keep the defense honest enough that Beverley could not diverge to provide help with Hawks spread around the perimeter. A similarly-focused game with Teague back in tow would help swing the outcome once again in Atlanta’s favor.
Let’s Go Hawks!