Game 1 Preview: Houston Rockets vs. Orlando Magic

It's late December, and your Houston Rockets are undefeated in regular season play. Sorry, couldn't resist.

After a lockout that lasted way too long, and a trade that happened, then didn't happen, then was going to happen but Daryl Morey didn't want to trade like 9 players for a guy who didn't want to come here (the nerve!), then a trade happened, but for worse pieces than the original trade, we're finally here. Man, I love ridiculously compound sentences that run-on way too much to the point of ridiculousness, though I'm sure you don't.

We've seen two preseason games from the Rockets, which is to say we ain't seen nothing yet. Rotations, offensive, and defensive schemes are to-be-determined, so forgive me for not having a grasp on what to expect. As the season goes on, we'll learn more about this team and how they will work under Kevin McHale. For now, it's just a quandry for all of us. I'm sure the coaches aren't even sure how this will all play out, so for now I'm preaching patience. There will be plenty of time later to trade everyone for future third rounders, I assure you.

This team is going to have flaws. Plenty of them. They'll be discussed ad nauseum throughout the season. But for now, let's just enjoy the beginning of another NBA season.

After you check out the matchups after the jump, of course.

Referee assignment: Dan Crawford, Kane Fitzgerald, and Scott Wall. The Rockets were 0-5 in road games last year reffed by Crawford. They didn't win a single game when Fitzgerald was given a whistle (0-3).

Matchups (More like Rockets Player Season Previews):

PG: Kyle Lowry vs. Jameer Nelson:

What a difference a year makes. Around Decemeber last year, Lowry was making plenty of people crave Ishmael Smith as the starting point guard for the Rockets. No disrespect to Ish, but that should tell you how horribly Lowry started the year. He signed a big contract, and a lot of us figured he had mailed in the offseason. He sustained an injury during the preseason, and when he started playing in games that mattered he was out of shape, making terrible decisions, playing poor defense, and taking shots that just weren't a part of his game.

And then somehow a light turned on. The end-of-quarter shots that Lowry had been missing poorly all year started to drop in more often. His passing became crisp. The defense we were accustomed to returned. But the two most important things that happened were that his jump shot improved tremendously (read: he got a lot better, like he used the basketball steroid equivalent for home runs on his jump shot), and he became the leader of the team.

You could attribute the team trading Aaron Brooks and displaying confidence in Lowry as the reason behind the improvement, and I wouldn't argue too much. But whatever happened, it turned him into a top 10 point guard. If you were to divide the point guards in the NBA into four tiers (elite, good, serviceable, and "We had to sign a 15th guy"), Lowry is solidly at the top of the second group, and Rockets fans can just hope that he knocks down the door into the elite.

Final note about Lowry. Whenever I see him, I remember last offseason when he was a restricted free agent. The Rockets allowed the market to dictate Lowry and Scola's values instead of extending them. So when Cleveland signed our backup point guard to a 4-year, $24 million deal, I figured the Rockets would let him walk. I mean, $6 mil per year for a backup? I liked the guy, but come on. AB was coming off a career year and he was making less than half of that. So anyway, what I'll never forget is that as soon as the news broke on Twitter that he had signed an offer sheet and the Rockets had 7 days to match, within minutes Daryl Morey posted:

Congratulations to Kyle Lowry on signing his new deal. We plan to match the agreement and we are excited he will be returning to the Rockets.

Let's just say that tweet tells us a lot about how Morey and the organization value Kyle Lowry. And now we know why.

Oh yeah, Jameer Nelson. Um, he would be in the second tier, too. Yeah, he's pretty good, and like...stuff. Tony Parker had a field day with us. Hopefully Nelson, who plays similarly, won't.

Advantage: Rockets

SG: Kevin Martin vs. Jason Richardson:

It's the beginning of the season, and so we return to K-Mart (er...Calvin and Hobbes') humble beginnings.

Firstc_medium

via calvinethobbes.free.fr

You see, K-Mart is like Calvin and Hobbes in that no matter what, even if the strip's creator no longer wishes to continue (or his GM wants to trade him), he's still just as enjoyable when you go back and relive those great moments you had during your childhood. Even Tracer Bullet, Spaceman Spiff, and Stupendous Man don't get old. And neither does seeing K-Mart bait some stupid defender into the air and draw the most ticky-tack shooting fouls in the league.

Sorry Jason Richardson, but today you have to deal with a gnat in a Rockets jersey. Good luck.

Advantage: Rockets

SF: Chase Budinger vs. Hedo Turkoglu:

Do I expect Chase Budinger to make "the jump" this year? Yes, because he has to. He started last year poorly (a recurring theme with this team), but finished strong. He's got Terrence Williams breathing down his neck for playing time, and he can't get away with being "a pleasant surprise" anymore. We need a consistent Bud, not a streaky one. I'd love to see him become more aggresive on offense. Remember, this guy has a huge vertical.

I've seen what this guy can do, but only in spurts and bits and pieces. In the words of The Little Mermaid (and probably Veruca Salt), "I want more."

Specifically, I want this Budinger (thanks to ClutchFans for the video):

Chase Budinger scores career high 30 vs. Cavs 2/23/2011 (via clutchfansDOTnet)

Advantage: Magic

PF: Luis Scola vs. Ryan Anderson:

I saved Scola for last when writing this preview. It's just that I don't know what to say about him that hasn't been said already a hundred times.

Going to get you at least 18/8 most nights? Yes.

Going to shoot at least 50% from the field most nights? Yep.

Going to work as hard as possible in the post and on the boards? You know it.

Going to run the break as well as any true big man in the league? For sure.

I don't know what to tell you folks. Maybe he should play basketball throughout the year to stay in shape? Oh wait, he does that.

Maybe he should get started on world hunger.

Advantage: Rockets

C: Jordan Hill vs. Dwight Howard:

I know the plan is for Dalembert to play here. I just don't know if McHale will wait a while to let him assimilate or just throw him into the fire. So, I've got Hill here with the obvious caveat of "I don't know yet."

I do expect Dalembert to get minutes since Howard will probably abuse Hill just like he abuses practically everyone he goes up against.

By the way, has anyone had as much of an up-and-down time period since the lockout ended besides Jordan Hill? First, with Yao gone he stood to become the first big man off the bench. Then Chuck Hayes signs with Sacramento, so he becomes the starting center for the Rockets. The there's the trade that won't be named, and he's back to backup center, then the trade doesn't happen, and he's good, then we try to sign Marc Gasol, and it's bad, then that doesn't work, so it's good, then Chuck Hayes might come back, so it's bad, then he doesn't, then Dalembert signs, but he's still the starter. Add in the death of a cousin, and you can see it's been a hectic offseason for our starting center.

Finally, I do want to say that I expect the competition for the minutes and starting spot to push Hill to become a better overall basketball player.

Advantage: Magic

---

Bench:

Magic: J.J. Redick, Quentin Richardson, Glen Davis, Chris Duhon, Larry Hughes, Von Wafer (!), others

Rockets: Goran Dragic, Jonny Flynn, Courtney Lee, Terrence Williams, Marcus Morris, Samuel Dalembert, Hasheem Thabeet

Advantage: Rockets

Injuries:

Magic: None

Rockets: Patrick Patterson?

Prediction: Magic win 109-92

Make sure you get in on TCWHRO (we have to figure out another way to say that)'s fantasy basketball game. Details here. Just make your predictions in the comments, and maybe explain how you came to that conclusion so we have something to talk about.

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