The Rockets will end a nice part of the schedule tonight in Orlando. Of the next five games, they play Golden State twice, as well as OKC, Phoenix, and Indiana. So we'll be seeing a lot of good teams in the next few days.
As for tonight, Houston will be glad to not lose Dwight Howard to suspension. Although Dwight should not have retaliated against Kevin Garnett, I do realize that as a big you can't allow yourself to have a soft label. Getting suspended for a game would have been better in the long run that having player feel like they could shove Dwight around and not worry about retaliation. OKC tried to do it earlier this year too, and for some reason the "Dwight Howard is soft" campaign has been integrated into the narrative.
Still, Houston heads to Orlando to play the feisty Magic. The Magic have played plenty of contenders close, and have quality wins in Orlando and Chicago while also beating the Hawks at home.
So the Rockets can't just plan on going to Disney World and walking out with a Mickey Mouse-shaped ice cream bar. The Magic sold out their crowd last year and it's possible they'll be out in full force to boo Howard all night. Not to mention, they have, you know, good players and stuff. I wrote a lot of about them in the matchups, so let's get to that.
Schedule breakdown: Both teams played on the road on Monday. The Rockets won in Brooklyn and the Magic came out with an incredibly impressive victory in Chicago.
Tip off is at 6pm CST.
Point Guard: Patrick Beverley vs. Elfrid Payton
How smart is TDS? Pretty much everyone on this board was talking up Payton leading up to the draft. He was originally a projected pick around the low 20s and Houston looked like it might have a shot at him. Of course, all the things we saw in him were seen by other NBA teams, and Payton shot up mock draft boards like I've seldom see a player do.
Payton's averaging 7/5/4 on the season. He's not a great shooter at 40% but he has been shooting better as of late.
I swear Patrick Beverley makes a three early in the game to throw us off the scent, then just misses them in bunches. He finished 2-8 from deep against Brooklyn. Also, we're not talking enough about his floater. He tried it early in the season and never seemed to find the bottom of the net. He took it out of the arsenal for a while, sticking to threes and layups. However, he's brought it back recently and it looks like he fixed whatever was wrong with it. It's near-automatic now and is yet another weapon for the Rockets' offense. If he keeps making them, bigs will have to release from Dwight to go after him, allowing him to lob to Howard for easy slams. In the meantime, expect teams to keep daring him to shoot the floater.
Shooting Guard: James Harden vs. Victor Oladipo
As I've stated multiple times here, I'm a big Tom Crean fan and therefore I watch Indiana basketball whenever I can. So I watched a lot of Victor Oladipo in college and you bet I thought he deserved to be a high lottery pick. He improved every year he was at IU and during his entire time there was a pesky defender that isn't dissimilar to what Beverley brings. He's fast, strong, and has great footwork. Those are the ingredients to successfully defending James Harden.
That, and making Harden work on the other end of the court. I've noticed Harden with a few too many mistakes on defense these last few weeks. He's made such a dramatic improvement on that end of the court that I hope that bad habits don't creep back now that his offense is humming.
Oladipo had some great plays at IU (like this and this), but maybe his most memorable moment in college was actually a missed dunk.
Small Forward: Trevor Ariza vs. Devyn Marble/Tobias Harris
Don't worry, I also saw that name and went "Wait who?" Since I write these previews, I like to think that I'm pretty aware of NBA players. Of the 450 active NBA players, I'd like to think I can name at least 98% of them. I'm sure most of you would consider yourselves capable of that as well.
But I hadn't heard of Marble, who was drafted 56th overall by the Nuggets in this year's draft. I guess I rarely watch for those players because they usually don't make NBA teams.
Anyway, Marble's played in 10 total games and has been starting here in place of Tobias Harris, who might be back tonight. He's missed two games with a sprained ankle and as of this writing is day-to-day.
Harris is averaging 18/7/2 while shooting 47% from the field and 41% from beyond the arc while taking three per contest. If he plays, McHale will have to figure out which wing he wants Ariza to guard.
Update: No Harris tonight, per Orlando Magic beat writer Josh Robbins. Source.
Advantage: Rockets if Marble, Magic if Harris
Power Forward: Donatas Motiejunas vs. Channing Frye
Stretch-4s have killed the Rockets recently. In fact, stretch bigs are a problem for Houston for two reasons.
1. Neither Dwight Howard nor Donatas Motiejunas is a great one-on-one perimeter defender. Most bigs aren't, and while D-Mo is great at hedging on pick-and-rolls and Howard can chase down guards in the lane, neither is great at stopping bigs who camp farther from the basket. That's one reason why Josh Smith fits in the Rockets' plans.
2. The Rockets defense is built to allow stretch-4s to get their long jumpers. Moreyball is all about "If you want a long two, it's yours. We won't even defend you." Recently, this has been an issue for Houston because bigs have been making those shots. Nene, Al Horford, Paul Millsap, Ryan Anderson, and Brook Lopez have all burned Houston in recent weeks by putting up jumpers. It's an issue that has been festering for some time. Mostly Houston has gotten away with it because it's rare for a big to continue to make long twos through four quarters. They can get hot but usually cool off when the game tightens up.
Well Channing Frye doesn't take long twos. He takes threes. And he'll mostly remind Rockets fans of Ryan Anderson. He allows Orlando to run the high screen-and-roll in a way that Houston can only dream about. Bigs can sag off that action in games because D-Mo and Howard aren't going to shoot threes too often on a pick-and-pop. D-Mo obviously can but he's so great at rolling to the basket that he does (and should do) that.
Frye is shooting 39% from distance and more than two-thirds of his shots have been threes. He averages less than one made two-pointer per game. So be on the lookout for his shooting. Because if he gets hot, he could put the Rockets in a hole they may not get out of without a miracle.
Center: Dwight Howard vs. Nikola Vucevic
By now you've probably seen Vucevic's line against the Bulls: 33/11 on 16-24 shooting after dropping 34/16 two nights earlier in Portland. He's a monster. He's had five straight double-doubles and in that time is averaging 24/12 on 57% shooting.
You've also been him baptize Pau Gasol, but who cares I'm putting it here anyway!
I love the staredown afterwards. That's about as thorough an embarrassment you can give to someone in the NBA. So many defenders try to get out of the way of posters because they don't want to be on Sportscenter. The best part here is that Pau was almost certainly expecting a floating hook shot. What he got was pain.
On the other end of the spectrum, Dwight Howard hasn't given Houston much in these last couple of games. I know his knee is still bothering him, but if it's bad I'd like McHale to sit him. 8/8 and 8/5 isn't going to cut it moving forward.
And if McHale is going to sit him for a little bit, I hope he has him play tonight and sits him against OKC. Because that's a schedule loss if I've ever seen one. But we'll talk about that tomorrow.
Rockets: Propeller Plane, Josh Smith, Corey Brewer, Joey Dorsey, Kostas Papanikolaou
Magic: Kyle O'Quinn, Maurice Harkless, Luke Ridnour, Willie Green, Ben Gordon, (Evan Fournier is day-to-day with a knee injury)
Advantage: Rockets, but that's a scary bench for Orlando. Lots of guys who can kill you.
Rockets vs Magic coverage