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Houston Rockets @ Dallas Mavericks on 1/16/13

The Mavericks and Rockets meet for the second time this year and their first time in Dallas. Interestingly, in the last month or so the teams have had followed pretty much the exact opposite trajectories of each other. The Rockets went on a hot streak from mid-December until early January (going 12-3) before cooling off and losing 4 straight, while the Mavericks had an absolutely miserable stretch during which they went 2-13 before recently recovering with a three game win streak.

The Rockets will have the schedule against them in this game, arriving in Dallas late on Tuesday after their match-up with the Clippers.  A glance at their record in back-to-backs makes for grim reading – scoring is way down at only 96.4 PPG (down on their overall average of 105.4) and their record is only 4-7. The main cause of that discrepancy seems to be shooting – field goal percentage drops from 45% to 41%, a significant decline. They will face a Mavs team with a day’s rest who are in the middle of a four game homestand, so if they are going to get anything out of the game the Rockets are going to have to fight through tired legs and find a way to disrupt the Maverick’s rhythm.Lineups:

Initially, Dirk Nowitzki’s return did not seem to improve Dallas’ putrid form. But after starting 1-8 in his first games back he has managed to turn things around recently. Dirk is still not back to scoring as consistently as he used to, but he is still a terror in the midrange and will be opposing team’s number one focus whenever he’s on the court.

Another player the Rockets will not be pleased to see if OJ Mayo, who torched the Rockets for 40 points in their last encounter. Containing Mayo is key to defeating the Mavericks, who have not won when Mayo shoots under 47% since opening night.

Darren Collison, Shawn Marion and Chris Kaman will round off the starting lineup for Dallas. They also have the luxury of bringing former All-Star Elton Brand off the bench to be their 6th man, and shot-blocker Brandan Wright rounds off a solid big man rotation. At the wings they will spell the starters with Dahntay Jones (a defensive specialist), Vince Carter (who’s having a renaissance of sorts as he embraces the reduced role that comes with age) and Jae Crowder (a rookie sharpshooter who has looked pretty good from what I’ve seen of him so far). Rodrigue Beaubois will backup Collison at the point.

For the Rockets, the battle for the PF position continues unabated. Patterson managed to regain his starting spot last night for a match-up with Blake Griffin, but did not perform all that well. Meanwhile Morris had a good game coming off the bench, with 3 three pointers. McHale values Patterson’s defence and I suspect that he will keep him in the starting line up for the next few games given the strength of the opposition at the position (starting PFs: Nowitzki, then West). The team really needs some consistent production out of this position – it’s one of the spots where McHale needs to keep tinkering until he finds a balance that allows both Morris and Patterson to succeed.

Lin seemed OK last night against the Clippers despite reports of an issue with his ankle coming in. Hopefully it won’t stiffen up between games. He might see reduced minutes tonight anyway if past games are anything to go by(more on that later). Any problems that cause him to be unable to play may mean we see some more of Patrick Beverley. As Forrest alluded to in last night’s recap, he showed some promise in (very limited) garbage time, able to withstand what I can only assume was Jamal Crawford’s attempt to give him an NBA baptism of fire with some aplomb. He’ll be someone to keep an eye on as the season goes on, and if he can show that he understands defensive principles beyond the dogged man-on-man variety he may be able to break into the team’s tight 3-man guard rotation.

On Offence:

As a team, the Rockets need to do a better job of avoiding settling for three pointers too much. At times, the offence starts to drift and it seems like the default shot to take is from behind the arc. That’s all well and good when some of them are going in, but when the perimeter guys are blowing cold it makes the offence look horrible and often coincides with opponents going on runs. They need to mix it up a bit and break the pattern – these ruts are one of the main reasons why Rockets games are see-saw affairs, and eliminating them would make the team much less frustrating, both to watch and play for. Especially as the game moves into the second half, it is imperative that the offence can produce a consistent stream of points. Too often in this four game losing streak the team has been unable to do that.

One factor that should help stop slumps like this forming in this game is that the Mavericks are one of the worst teams in the league at allowing free-throws. They sport an opponent FTA/FGA of .230, good for 27th in the league. Against a group like that, it is imperative to get into the lane and force the action.

It’s all very well drawing free throws, but unless you’re converting them it’s not particularly useful. The Rockets have had a couple of games recently with atrocious overall free throw shooting numbers, and it’s worth doing a short dissection of this trend. Against the Celtics, this was because the players who were being sent to the line were not Toney Douglas (90.7% FT%) or James Harden (85.6%) but Omer Asik (53.9% and 1-8 on the night) and Greg Smith (64.6% and 0-4 on the night). You can’t expect a team to shoot a high percentage at the line if your worst shooters are the ones taking them, so this seems like a forgivable lapse. But against the Clippers it was a team-wide malaise, which is more worrying. Of the seven players who attempted free throws during the game, only Carlos Delfino (4-4) was perfect from the line. There won’t have been much time for the coaching staff to correct this tendency, but hopefully the players will come in knowing they need to do a better job here.

Another key part of the game that the Rockets can exploit is rebounding. The Mavericks are in the bottom third of the league in rebouding % on both the offensive and defensive glass – neither Kaman nor Nowitzki are particularly good in this area. This might be a good game for Greg Smith if he can get time on the court – his ability to outwork opponents on the offensive glass could lead to a lot of opportunities this evening. Especially since tired legs will undoubtably lead to a few more missed shots than usual.

On Defence:

The most intriguing aspect of the Rockets’ last game against the Mavericks was the coaching staff’s search to find someone who could adequately guard OJ Mayo. After starting Harden on him, they quickly switched to Parsons before eventually settling on Toney Douglas. They were concerned that Mayo was too quick for Parsons to guard (from memory I think Chandler had been slightly too respectful of Mayo’s dribble and allowed him to hit some threes in his face), but Douglas has his own shortcomings. He did well for most of the game but got wiped out on screens on a couple of key late possessions allowing Mayo to get open for some dagger shots. It will be interesting to see whether the coaching staff return to this match-up tonight. If they do, it will likely mean extended minutes for Douglas at the expense of Lin. This may be a boon if Lin is still feeling the effects of his ankle injury.

Parsons will probably also take a few possessions on Mayo, but you have to be careful with cross-matching because that will put the smaller SG on Marion. He may be getting older, but Marion is crafty and very capable of abusing a smaller man in the post if given the opportunity.

Patterson has come back in time to draw some of the toughest covers in the league, each with their own unique challenges. Last night he was having to worry about getting dunked on, whereas tonight he’s going to have to worry about getting buried under a rain of one-legged fadeaways. Guarding Nowitzki is always tough, and I would imagine the Rockets will look to try and change things up after several passive defensive showings and perhaps throw a few double teams at him.

Summary:

The Mavericks’ offence features two potent threats in Nowitzki and Mayo and several other competent attacking players. But it is the other end of the floor that will decide whether the Rockets are able to win this game. If they can get to the line and the offensive glass, they should stand a good chance of being able to snap their season-worst losing streak.

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