I'm going to preface this with thinking that ak2themax said that he can't do a game preview today because of traveling, or something like that.
Tonight is a big game, as is the rest of the games this season if we have any shot of making the playoffs. Both San Antonio and Portland (the two teams we have any realistic shot of catching in the playoff race) are beginning to play pretty well, and a caller on KILT 610 the other night pointed out that the Rockets must finish the season 14-4 in order to tie Portland if they finish 7-7 (they have played 4 more games than us this season). That's quite the task, considering we still have games left against a lot of +.500 teams.
Denver is coming to Houston on a 6-game winning streak, and looking for their first season sweep of the Rockets in 32 years and having vanquished New Orleans and Memphis in their last two games. The Rockets are looking for their first 3-game winning streak in a long, long time. Said streak would tie the longest for the season. The last time Denver visited Houston, they played without Carmelo Anthony, but got big games from Billups and Smith, pulling away in the 4th quarter despite the good guys being up by as much as 15 early in the game.
PG: Aaron Brooks v. Chauncey Billups: Chauncey Billups is kind of really good at basketball. He is big for his position, an amazing passer, solid 3-point shooter and plays great defense. Not much can be said about him that hasn't been said here, on ESPN, or illustrated by his career. Aaron has been struggling lately; to be frank, he is taking too many shots, and they are not the smartest shot attempts. This problem is especially visible in late-game situations - his dribble for 22 seconds and shoot strategy has cost us games recently (see: Detroit), or let bad teams get in the game (see: Washington). Aaron has had some bad games against Billups, but he's also had some great games against him. Still. . .
SG: Kevin Martin v. Aaron Afflalo: For clarity's sake, basketball-reference has Afflalo listed as Denver's starting SG. Kevin Martin had a quiet 20 points Saturday night, and continues to play pretty well as a Rocket. Afflalo can play decent defense, but I imagine him getting the Blue Light Special tonight. Don't be surprised if Kevin has a 25-30 point game tonight; then again, you should probably never be surprised if he dumps that many points on someone.
SF: Trevor Ariza v. Carmelo Anthony: Melo continues to be a monster this season, having dropped 24 and 6 on Memphis the other night. Ariza is starting to make decent strides, having posted a double-double against the Nets. The key phrase in that sentence, however, is 'against the Nets.' Help defense is going to be so crucial in this game - if the Rockets make Melo take the lion's share of his team's shots and keep the passing lanes closed, we stand a chance. Otherwise, we're toast. Even if we do execute a solid defensive game plan, Melo still might win it anyway for his team. He's done it before.
PF: Luis Scola v. Johan Petro: The Nuggets have been bitten particularly hard by the injury bug in the front court department, so I'm making an educated guess about who starts at PF for them. He's only averaging 3 points and 3 rebounds this season, and had 5 and 5 against Memphis. Needless to say, the guy isn't used to seeing 20+ minutes a game, and that's probably going to show against Scola, who posted an epic career high this weekend. Interesting tidbit of info: Scola is the first Rocket since the Dream to hit 20 shots in a game, and that was in 1990. The Rockets need to lob it in to Scola, and play a more inside-out game against Denver in order to exploit their current glaring weakness in the post.
Advantage: Rockets, and clearly the most important advantage of tonight's game.
C: Chuck Hayes v. Nene Hilario: Nene is having a pretty solid season this year, averaging 14 and 8. He played pretty well against Houston their last visit here, and Scola is going to be exerting a lot of energy on the offensive end (hopefully). Subsequently, it's going to be on Hayes to really contain the Nuggets' only [current] front court weapon. Chuck has done it before, and knowing when he's gonna come to play is hard to tell.
Advantage: Nuggets, but definitely not set in stone
Denver Bench: J.R. Smith is coming off an incredible 4th quarter against Memphis, and Anthony Carter has been playing well as of late. Unfortunately, for Denver, Andersen Balkman and Martin are all hurt, severely hurting their depth at the moment.
Conversely. . .
Houston Bench: Houston is finally at full strength in the wake of Lowry and Ariza's return. Battier has played OK off the bench, Lowry has been Lowry, and Jordan Hill is continuing to show why he was the 8th pick in the draft. This is a game where the bench really has to give it to Denver, given their weaknesses right now. Luckily, having a defensive-minded wing come off the bench (Battier) with a scoring wing (Budinger) means we might be able to slow down Smith while still putting points on the board.
Advantage: Houston, and once again is a crucial one.
All in all, Houston has looked more and more like they are playing to the level of their competition in the last week or two. Let's hope that continues tonight, so that the Rockets scrape out a victory. I'm gonna be at the game, and I think they've only lost 5-6 of the last 20 games I've attended, so here's to banking on my presence.
Prediction: I really think the Rockets can scrape this one out tonight. Rockets by 6.