It was roughly a year ago when Houston travelled to Memphis with new acquisition Josh Smith and upset the Grizzlies in overtime. Suddenly, the Rockets were contenders. Smith had fit in immediately and Corey Brewer was giving Houston punch off the bench. The Rockets were for real, and Memphis was their debut.
Tonight Houston heads to Beale Street on a different plane of existence in the NBA landscape. Discarded, forgotten, and shamed by each and every media outlet, these Rockets don't resemble those fun Rockets.
A buddy of mine asked the other day what Houston needed to get back to prominence, besides effort. The answer is that there's no answer to that question.
We harp on it time and time again. Effort is the key for the Rockets. Sure, Houston has TONS of other issues, but they all seem to melt away when the Rockets try. It's an easy explanation for Houston's 4-0 record in overtime games this season. When the game comes down to 5 minutes, Houston goes all-out and usually comes out on top. When the Rockets play to their potential, they start reminding us of the team that deservedly advanced to the Western Conference Finals.
Maybe the Rockets know this. Maybe they think that effort will even the playing field in the playoffs. Maybe they think that not having home court advantage won't be an issue because they will undoubtedly try harder in the nationally televised playoff games. But it's this lack of effort that has made Houston an easy target for any looking to write them off. It's effort that causes them to lose winnable games.
Anyway, how well the Rockets try on offense and defense tonight will dictate how this game goes. Memphis is notoriously stingy on defense. There's a number that keeps popping up over and over again when you look at the Grizzlies' previous games: 90. When Memphis hold opponents under 90 points, they usually win. They are 8-1 in such games. In 17 of Memphis' 18 losses, they allowed 91 points or more.
So the goal for Houston is to hit 91.
Point Guard: Patrick Beverley vs. Mario Chalmers
Mike Conley is questionable with a sore Achilles so it will probably be Chalmers picking up minutes here for the Grizzlies.
Chalmers generally hasn't played well against Houston in his career, and it's easy to say that it's probably due to Patrick Beverley. Chalmers' true shooting percentage is lower against Houston than it is against any other team over the course of his career by a sizable amount. He got the free throw line 13 times against Boston so if he keeps that going it would significantly improve his numbers against Houston.
Even if Conley plays, it will be unlikely that he'll be 100% since he was limited in practice on Monday.
For Houston, Ty Lawson is eligible to play after serving his 3-game suspension.
Shooting Guard: James Harden vs. Courtney Lee
Lee has missed the last 2 games with a hip injury, but has stated that he will play tonight. If he does, that will move Tony Allen to the bench. Both are good defenders (in Allen's case he's great), but the job for Harden on defense likely won't change much either way. Both will make cuts to get to the basket. Lee killed the Rockets in Houston by hitting midrange jumper after midrange jumper when these teams last met.
Let's talk about James Harden for a minute. Specifically, let's talk about the isolations late in games that Harden runs.
The easy (and only if you're in the media or a Twitter user who wishes they were in the media) narrative is that late-game isolations are wrong and that Houston should never run them. However, that's not true.
Let's look at possessions where Harden initiated the offense out of an isolation This does not include plays where Houston set a pick for Harden, which is by definition not an isolation.
1. Down 97-93, Harden drives and gets fouled. He should have gotten 2 free throws but the refs called it on a pass-off. The NBA admitted the error.
2. Down 99-94, Beverley sets a kind-of pick/screen but really he's just running across Harden. Still, it brings attention to Harden who hits Bev for the 3. I'd be willing to toss this from the examples. But it was shaping up to be an isolation.
3. Down 99-97, Harden drives and throws a ridiculous behind the head pass to Dwight for a layup.
4. Down 101-99, Harden drives and finds a wide open Ariza in the corner for 3.
5. Down 103-102, Harden drives and kicks out to an open Patrick Beverley, who takes advantage of Indiana's scrambling defense to find a wide-open Brewer in the corner for 3.
6. Up 105-103, Harden loses the ball on a crossover and turns it over. Not much to say here, except that Harden didn't really make up his mind about what he wanted to do and it cost him.
So, that's 5 (or 4) possessions where Houston basically ran a Harden iso with no other visible action, and it worked out.
It's hard to draw conclusions about 6 possessions, but the signs are good that Houston can absolutely rely on Harden IF they end up with him driving and looking for teammates. When he commits to the drive good things can happen. Alternatively, drives will force Harden's man to play the dribble and will let Harden take that step-back that he loves. All too often he has tried to use the step-back to open up the drive. However, the eye test over his 3+ years here are definitive: his drives set up Houston's offense in a way that nothing else can.
Therefore, the next time you see a Houston isolation go wrong, don't blame the play call. Instead blame Harden for settling for something besides a drive. Good defenders will make his life more difficult. But in those situations Houston should be bringing over a pick or running something else off-ball.
Small Forward: Trevor Ariza vs. Jeff Green
We broke the Ariza Rule ages ago (in both directions), but Ariza's good games continue to coincide with Rockets victories. We've seen time and time again that the key to Houston success comes down to two factors:
1. Did Harden play well?
2. Did anyone else step up?
The first one isn't needed every night, but too many times this season the Rockets have relied on Harden and haven't gotten contributions elsewhere. That's a bit harsh on Ariza since he's usually working his tail off on defense, but Houston desperately needs him to hit open 3s like he did against Indiana. And I guess a few clutch triples are nice too.
For his part, Green is having an awful season by his standards. His shooting is barely hovering above 40% and his 3-point percentage, which was 36% during his time in Memphis last season is down to 27%. For a team that needs Green to help them space the floor, that's worrisome.
Power Forward: Clint Capela vs. Zach Randolph
Wait AK you're so stupid! Z-Bo has been coming off the bench in the last few games and eating up opposing benches! You're so dumb for putting him here! Hang up the keyboard you fool!
Wow that was really harsh, random observer.
But you're right. Z-Bo has been coming off the bench recently and has been killing it. He's averaging 22/11 over his last 4 games. As the focal point of the bench offense, he's feasting on backup bigs.
That's a problem for Houston, who will have...Terrence Jones off the bench tonight as their only big (unless Montrezl Harrell sees minutes again). I think Bickerstaff and co. would be smarter to align Capela's minutes with Z-Bo's. The risk is that Capela could get into real foul trouble with the crafty veteran. This matchup is absolutely going to be the key to the game tonight.
Oh, but Matt Barnes will start and more than likely Jeff Green will play here early on. If JBB wants to he could start Jones but I bet he'll want to see if Houston can dictate the matchup instead of letting Memphis do so.
Center: Dwight Howard vs. Marc Gasol
Gasol is shooting his worst percentage as a pro this season, but otherwise his numbers are fairly consistent with the rest of his career numbers. He's averaging 14/9/7 in the two meetings with the Rockets this season, so Dwight will have his work cut out for him.
I always look for an excuse to put this video in any Memphis preview, so here goes.
Rockets: Ty Lawson, Jason Terry, Marcus Thornton, Corey Brewer, Terrence Jones
Grizzlies: Matt Barnes, Tony Allen, JaMychal Green, Vince Carter
Prediction: Grizzlies hold Houston under 91, win.
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