Houston Rockets @ Atlanta Hawks on 1/10/2014

The Houston Rockets are undefeated in 2014. The New York Knicks and the Los Angeles Lakers may not be much to write home about this season, but two wins were exactly what a stumbling Rockets team needed. Now, they have a chance to kick off a road trip with another win in Atlanta over a Hawks team that has its own share of injuries as well. With star-caliber big man Al Horford on the bench with a pectoral injury, the Hawks have dropped three of their last four games. Despite being only two games above .500 versus Houston’s ten, the Hawks occupy the third spot in the wasteland known as the Eastern Conference. A win over a third seed, even a weak one, would be a nice third win in a row for a Rockets team looking to gel in the new year.

Stop me if you’re heard this before: the Eastern Conference is terrible. Read any NBA blog for a couple posts, and you’ll be well aware of this fact. The east has alternated between two and three winning teams all season long, with the Toronto Raptors joining the Atlanta Hawks in a dance back and forth across the .500 line. With Al Horford most likely shut down for the year, it’s hard to see the Hawks maintaining their level of play, such as it was. On the other hand, with the competition out east, it’s also hard to see them falling off significantly. One was or another, Atlanta is a playoff team, and beating playoff teams is mission critical for these Rockets.

So what does Atlanta have? Paul Millsap is an excellent player, and will do his best to light up Terrence Jones and Dwight Howard in and around the paint. He can even shoot a three here and there, and will do his best to pull shot blockers away from the rim. Jeff Teague is a young exciting point guard, much like Houston’s Jeremy Lin. Kyle Korver is an excellent three point shooter. DeMarre Carroll, lackluster stint in Houston notwithstanding, is actually a decent NBA player and has been doing a good job in Atlanta. The Hawks have a bright future, but with the loss of Horford, the present is somewhat dimmed.

So can the Rockets beat the Hawks? Yes, absolutely. Even without Ömer Aşık and Patrick Beverley, even with Greg Smith and Chandler Parsons questionable to play, the Rockets have more talent and a more cohesive team. Unfortunately, that’s been true for a lot of games the Rockets have lost. Even against the Lakers, the Rockets trailed during the majority of the first half, looking lethargic and lost before realizing that they had to make an effort, even against a bad team. They came out swinging in the second half, absolutely dominating the Lakers until they implemented a Smite-a-Dwight strategy late in the game.

Harden, for his part, has released some kind of internal limiter and is now averaging 37 points per game in the last three games. After dealing with nagging foot and ankle injuries, James Harden seems to be rounding into form, and that form is both terrifying and electric. His mid-range jumper has taken off, and teams who surrender the least efficient shot in basketball are being buried by him. At this point, the only place Harden isn’t lights-out accurate is about two feet behind the three point arc, and he seems to be trying to learn that shot, too. His effort on the defensive end may be intermittent at best, but his offensive game is coming into focus, and for the last few games, the blurry image is resolving into an oncoming tsunami.

Dwight Howard’s post game has been improving steadily, and his pick and roll game with Harden is as deadly as expected. Seeing how he does against a depleted Hawks team will add another piece to the ongoing puzzle of Howard’s recovery. He’s not quite where he was before his back injury, but he’s getting closer. Dominating the Hawks should be second nature to him, given that his Magic did that repeatedly in the playoffs during Dwight’s tenure there. Moreover, seeing how Howard and Harden interact this calendar year will tell us a lot about how far the Rockets are from true contention.

Atlanta is the next stop on this ride for Houston, and the planned destination is a championship. The path might not lead there this season, but 2014 will see a lot of ground covered. Each game shows us a little more of the path, and this game is no different. There are no throwaway games this season, because every game is a chance for Harden and Howard to grow into the shoes they’ve chosen. Watch closely, because the Rockets might reach the end of the road any day now.

Tip off is at the 6:30 Central time at the Phillips Arena in Atlanta, Georgia. For more Hawks coverage, check out TrueHoop’s Hawks blog, HawksHoop.

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