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Game Preview: Houston Rockets @ Atlanta Hawks

For the first time in years, the Houston Rockets have a foundational player and some league-wide buzz to boot. That’s the good news. The bad news is that Al Horford and Josh Smith are next on the docket. The Rockets head to Philips Arena to kick off the Hawks’ season and try to keep 82-0 on the table. The Hawks are not going to make that easy.

The big story here is, of course, James Harden. He dropped a mind blowing line last game, though he had to use 44 minutes of playing time to do it. The Hawks, however, are not the Pistons, and the rim will be patrolled with a vengeance by Al Horford and Josh Smith. Harden also faces an interesting matchup in Jeff Teague, who is not only a capable defender but also shares many similarities with The Bearded One. Both are comfortable at either backcourt spot, and may in fact be the best creators for their respective teams. This is the matchup everyone will be watching, and with good reason.

Beyond the shooting guard position, there are some questions about Houston’s starting lineup. Greg Smith, Terrence Jones and expected starter Patrick Patterson are all working through varying degrees of injury or soreness (Smith suffered a foot strain late in the Pistons game). All three have stated they feel ready and able to play versus the Hawks, but the final decision is, as always, in the hands of head coach Kevin McHale. Given Marcus Morris’ grim showing against the Pistons Wednesday night, anybody else would be preferable with the start at the power forward position.

Lin and Harris both have quite a bit to prove to their doubters, but there’s a good chance one or both of them reverts to some ugly numbers if their paths to the rim are cut off. The important thing for Lin, however, is his tandem play with Harden, so don’t be surprised if his points are low and turnovers are high as they try some new sets. Kyle Korver against Chandler Parsons should be an amusing if not necessarily very enjoyable matchup. Korver is as known for his sharpshooting as he is infamous for his horrendous defense, which is as close to the exact opposite of Chandler Parsons as one can find (apart from the fact that Parsons’ shot has shown some marked improvement this year). If there’s a hole in Hawks’ defense, it’s liable to be Korver.

The frontcourt, however, should be a fairly daunting affair. Al Horford is one of the better, young centers in the league, and he’s no defensive slouch. Asik should also have his hands full with Horford’s offense, but “that’s why we ****ing got him,” after all. The real terror here is Josh Smith, who has the athleticism size and speed to make life hard for anyone he matches up with. Given the Rockets’ new preference for layups over jumpers, this will be a test to see how well they react to a strong matchup. Houston has an array of different types of players to throw into the gnashing teeth of the Hawks’ frontcourt, and it won’t be surprising to see them go through quite a few of them.

Asik and Patterson round out the Rockets’ starters, and should put in the same skills we’ve come to expect from them. Asik will stifle anything that comes near the basket, and will try to be lurking under the opposing rim as much as possible for high percentage, awkward looks and putbacks. Patterson has excellent shooting range for his position, and has looked much better this year than last. If he plays, his notable defensive prowess will be tested against Josh Smith, who frankly can do a bit of everything at his position.

Delfino should provide the scoring spark off the bench again, and he seems to be ready to fall into that role for Houston. He was a rare spark of solid play from the bench in the game against the Pistons, and the Rockets will need that even more against a more capable hawks bench, including defensive specialist DeShawn Stephenson. Greg Smith was the other bright light, happily playing competent defense, setting and using picks with Harden well, and having more hustle than the rest of the bench combined. It’s increasingly easy to see why the Rockets seem to prefer him to Cole Aldrich as backup big.

While Daequan Cook looked wan in his limited minutes in Wednesday’s game, the real low-light off the bench was Toney Douglas. His play was stultifying for anyone who watched Livingston and Machado in the preseason, and I can only hope to see less of it. At this point, he and Morris look lost to the point that any other player on the bench would help Houston more. I, for one, am hoping that McHale lets promising undrafted rookie Scott Machado get some minutes off the bench.

Unless McHale can start getting some results from his bench (which, to be honest, is still on the table. Four players sat out last game), the Rockets starters are going to have to develop leads large enough for the bench not to blow, which may prove a bit too much against a relatively veteran team in the Hawks.

Terrence Jones, if he’s healthy, looks ready to be the breakout bench player for Houston. Keep an eye out for him to erase a shot or two if he sees time, as well as turn some fast breaks into highlight dunks. Donatas Moteijunas and Royce White also have yet to see NBA minutes, and either could prove to be an unusual skill set which could prove valuable against the Hawks. Cole Aldrich is also a team member.

The win against Detroit felt good, but it raised as many issues as it put down. Long minutes for starters and a herculean, adrenaline fueled effort were key in that win. While it’s good to know that the Rockets seem to have that closer they’ve sought in James Harden, simply running a free-wheeling offense may prove insufficient against a team with such a stony frontcourt. Houston’s perimeter defense also looked soft and easily distracted against Detroit, which players like Korver will exploit with great gusto unless the Rockets’ communication improves. Sets and rotations will have to be experimented with during this year, and this game may prove to be a valuable learning experience, but a heartbreaking loss.

Of course, the record at the end of this season barely matters beyond a feather in everyone’s cap, so enjoy the obligation-free excitement while it lasts. The Rockets and Hawks tip off at 6:30 pm Central Time, Friday, November 2.

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