I hope you had a fun Christmas/holiday season. But it's back to business with the previews.
What a difference a 3 weeks makes.
The last time these teams squared off, the Rockets were without 3 starters (Howard, Jones, Beverley) and their backup at point guard (Canaan). The Rockets received heavy bench minutes from Joey Dorsey, Nick Johnson, and Francisco Garcia and pulled off a ridiculously unexpected win. Well, you can pretty much scrap all of that now.
Two of the three starters are back and so is Canaan (thought not playing much yet). Josh Smith is a Rocket. As are Alexey Shved and Corey Brewer. Donatas Motiejunas will now run the bench offense. Propeller Plane moves to the bench and joins a rag-tag group that suddenly looks like a fun and deep unit.
For the Grizzlies, Zach Randolph is questionable for tonight with a knee injury. The Grizz are in the midst of a 3-game losing streak and it's no coincidence that Z-Bo has missed two of those games and left the other early with the injury. He's incredibly important to what they do as a team and if he's out that's a big loss for them.
Z-Bo's injury in proof positive that every Western Conference team is one injury away from dropping like an anvil in the standings. We've talking about how every WC team seemingly improved over the offseason and yet it seems like every team is hanging by a thread while healthy. Let's run them down, shall we?
The Spurs usually navigate injury waters well but this season their injuries coincided with a rough stretch of schedule. They're getting healthy again but who knows where they're going to end up at the end of the season.
Memphis lost Z-Bo for 2.5 games and lost all 3 in that span. Losing Gasol for any stretch would be tough for them, as would losing any of their other starters.
Oklahoma City almost drowned while waiting for Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to come back and even though they went on a tear once they got their full squad back, they've been treading water while KD rides out this ankle injury.
Portland will be without Robin Lopez for a time and will struggle to defend the paint without him. Ditto for Golden State and Andrew Bogut.
The Clippers haven't had to deal with injuries yet but could be in real trouble without CP3, Griffin, or Jordan. Meanwhile, the Mavs have had both Tyson Chandler and Monta Ellis for every game but those are two of the three most important players on their roster.
Schedule breakdown: Both of these teams last played on Monday, giving neither team a schedule advantage here. The Grizzlies dropped a game at home to the Jazz while Houston exorcised some demons by beating Portland.
Question for Memphis fans: do you guys think that "Walking in Memphis" is overplayed or is it a song you will love forever? It's one of my favorite songs but I wonder if it would wear on me if I had to listen to it as much as you guys probably do.
Also, remember that saying "grit-and-grind" or any of its variations is grounds for warnings. Someone tell the national media that we get it. Memphis grits their teeth and grinds their way through games. The fascination with including "grind" in everything related the Grizzlies has become one of the most annoying tropes in basketball.
Tip off is at 7pm CST on NBA TV.
Point Guard: Patrick Beverley vs. Mike Conley
Too similar pests on defense. On offense it's a different story.
While Beverley has added a runner and a more consistent three point shot into his game, Conley is shooting career (or near-career) highs in each shooting category and has consistently become the third option for the Grizzlies and their first option late in games. He'll be a handful tonight for Beverley.
Update since I wrote this: Beverley is questionable with an illness. My guess is that Propeller Plane starts here but it will be interesting to see how McHale juggles this rotation now.
Shooting Guard: James Harden vs. Courtney Lee
I'm sure most of you are a bit miffed about Kobe Bryant being ahead of James Harden in All-Star Game voting. Well, first off, NBA fans are generally pretty stupid. Have you read the comments section on ESPN? It's a black hole that will suck out your faith in humanity and make you question everything you thought about family, humans, and religion.
Anyway, I'll give you my mini-rant about the ASG voting and then get out of the way.
I'm all for letting fans vote. It's a game for them so absolutely if they want to see Kobe over Harden they totally should get to see that. In that regard, I have no issues with the system. What bothers me is how much emphasis we put on All-Star games when we look back at players' careers. If the number of games played is going to figure into a player's resume, then fans shouldn't get to vote.
By pushing Kobe into his 17th ASG, we're building his case in a way that he has no control over. Sure, Kobe belongs in the Hall of Fame and people can argue him vs. Jordan all they want. Really though, by putting Kobe into the game we're screwing over others who probably deserve to be in the game but aren't. It's entirely possible that Kobe being in the game means that probably two of Westbrook, Conley, and Voldemort won't get in. So when those players have their Hall cases studied, they'll have one ASG less than they probably deserve. And with Kobe looking to play until he's 50, he might ruin other legacies besides just his own.
So I say either get rid of the fan voting system (unlikely) or don't use ASG numbers when looking at Hall cases. /rant
Small Forward: Trevor Ariza vs. Tayshaun Prince
I realize that this is the part where I talk about Ariza. I could tell you that he's bound to play fewer minutes with Brewer and Smith in tow.
Or I could talk about a guy who might be feeling like the odd man out: Kostas Papanikolaou.
Kostas played the backup 3 early in the season and transitioned to giving Houston some minutes as a small-ball four as D-Mo's improvement continued. Those minutes from Brewer and Smith will lighten the load for Ariza but will certainly kick Papa out of the rotation.
As the Rockets' second-best passer, Papa was seen as a below-the-rim player who could light it up from distance and drive and dish when needed. His shooting has been inconsistent and he's been a bit too passive when he gets decent looks.
But the below-the-rim stuff? Well, we were kind of wrong about that. He dunked on Larry Sanders, but he'd been out-jumping everyone in Europe for years.
Power Forward: Josh Smith vs. Kosta Koufos
Odd matchup here because of the question marks. The Rockets have said that they're planning on having Smith available tonight, but how much time he'll play remains to be seen. Meanwhile, Koufos has been starting in place of Z-Bo but if Randolph plays that changes things here too. So I'm leaving the advantage as a question mark.
Center: Dwight Howard vs. Marc Gasol
I think Marc Gasol has been the best center in the league this season and the games ended today he would easily be the center for the All-NBA squad. He certainly deserves the starting spot in the All-Star Game that should be reserved for centers but isn't because the NBA had to find a way to screw Dwight Howard out of the game last season. Not that I'm bitter.
Anyway, Dwight's has had his troubles with the Grizzlies in the past and was a -27 when they met in Memphis last time. Granted everyone played like crap so it's not fair to put too much blame on Dwight's shoulders.
Rockets: Propeller Plane, Kostas Papanikolaou, Donatas Motiejunas, Tarik Black/Joey Dorsey, Alexey Shved, Corey Brewer
Grizzlies: Jon Leuer, Beno Udrih, Vince Carter, Jordan Adams
Prediction: Rockets fall 102-81.
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