On Monday night, LeBron James and the Miami Heat will travel to Houston to face the Rockets in a game rife with interesting story lines.
Jeremy Lin has a chance to redeem himself in his second shot against a Miami team that watched him put up as many points as turnovers (8) last February. James Harden plays against Dwyane Wade in a matchup of top shooting guards.
Chris Bosh returning to the city he may regret passing up three summers ago. Former fan favorite Shane Battier makes his first appearance back at the Toyota Center since being traded at the 2011 trade deadline.
As is typically the case against the Heat, the Rockets will have to play some of their best basketball to protect their home court and get the win. A performance like the one they gave on Saturday night against the Pistons will not going to cut it; the Heat's punishing athleticism can dominate weak teams on both sides of the floor.
Keys to the Game:
1) Control the Transition Game
Against the Nuggets, the Rockets were completely outmatched in the fast break, as Kenneth Faried, Ty Lawson, and Corey Brewer consistently beat the Rockets up the court. Against a Heat team that features LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, the Rockets must hustle back and slow down the transition attack.
More importantly, in order to avoid the fast break altogether, the Rockets must be careful with the ball and not turn the ball over. Exploiting turnovers is where the Heat do their best work, and with mistake-prone guards, the turnovers could be a major problem.
2) Exploit the Rebound Advantage
In the brief sample size of six games, the Rockets are 4th in the NBA in rebound rate, grabbing 52% of available rebounds. The Heat, on the other hand, are below average with a rebound rate of 49%, one downside to playing so many minutes with an undersized front line.
If the Rockets are to beat the Heat, they must beat the Heat inside, restricting the Heat to one shot opportunity and finishing off the put-backs they are able to get. Offensively, the Heat have so much firepower that if the Rockets concede more than one shot, there is no way to stop them.
On to the matchups!
Point Guard: Jeremy Lin vs. Mario Chalmers
Apart from steals per game, Mario Chalmers continues to lead the Heat in a category he's dominated since his rookie year: rate at which other teammates berate/yell at him. Still, he's managed a nice start to the season for him, connecting on 40% of his threes and generally staying out of LeBron and Wade's way.
Though Jeremy Lin has certainly taken too much flack for his defense than he deserves, it is worth mentioning that Lin and the Rockets have yet to keep an opposing starting point man under 14 points this season. If Lin is caught ball watching LeBron and Wade, Chalmers could certainly beat the Rockets from outside.
When the Rockets have the ball, Lin will definitely be challenged by the suffocating Heat defense that famously "exposed" him last year late in the season. Chalmers is a solid defender with tremendous hands and length, and the rest of the Heat's athleticism will pose a problem for Lin, who has struggled with turnovers in his young career.
Still, Lin's overall game should be a bit of an advantage over Chalmers, who has inexplicably high turnover rates despite being asked to do very little in the Heat's offense.
Shooting Guard: James Harden vs. Dwyane Wade
Wade, who has been fighting an illness in recent weeks, returned last night against the Grizzlies and will almost certainly start against the Rockets on Monday night. Thus far, Wade has more or less picked up where he left off on an excellent campaign in 2011-12, scoring at an efficient rate and giving justification to those who claim he is the top shooting guard in the NBA.
On the other hand, James Harden has regressed after a ridiculous start to the season, struggling with the outside jumper he so relied on in the past. In time, there is no reason why he cannot wrestle the crown of top shooting guard away from Wade as Wade ages, but he is not there yet.
Forwards: Chandler Parsons and Patrick Patterson vs. Shane Battier and LeBron James
Pat Riley has always turned his nose up at the idea of NBA positions, and this year is yet another example of this, with LeBron and Shane Battier, traditional wings their entire career, playing the 3 and 4 for the Heat.
Though Battier's had a rough start to the season, the returns from the lineup, whether this year or last year, were always strong, as teams struggle to matchup against the versatile duo.
Parsons will likely be asked to check LeBron, and his success in the matchup will go a long way in deciding who comes out on top.
Center: Omer Asik vs. Chris Bosh
Despite whatever you thought about the Omer Asik signing this summer, it was always apparent that he would one of the most important pieces to the team, a team so devoid of defensive talent. Thus far, this has held true, as Asik has more or less closed down the middle and allowed the Rockets to become a top five defensive squad (in terms of defensive efficiency). Additionally, he's swallowed every rebound in sight, finding himself third in the league with nearly 13 rebounds a game.
His offensive game has been silliness at times, but he's delivered on every count the Rockets have needed from him. His success is definitely a feather in Morey's cap early in the season.
On the flip side, Chris Bosh is still an All-Star and is having yet another excellent season for the Heat. He may not be your perception of an ideal center, but he's pretty darn effective.
Bench: Toney Douglas, Carlos Delfino, Marcus Morris, and Greg Smith vs. Norris Cole, Ray Allen, Rashard Lewis, and Udonis Haslem
On Saturday night against the Pistons, the bench showed serious signs of life, with Marcus Morris continuing to show that he can be a scorer the team can count on. With Lin and Harden getting heavy minutes early in the season, that continued development is going to be key to keep the back court upright and effective.
For the Heat, the off-season additions of Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis are paying huge dividends. Rashard Lewis was never going to live up to that contract the Magic gave him, but as a bench scorer, he's more than adequate. Both Lewis and Allen are shooting upwards of 50% from behind the arc, and the consistent bench scoring is the one biggest upgrade the Heat have found versus last year's squad.
Prediction: Heat win 99-85
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