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Houston Rockets @ Sacramento Kings on 12/15/2013

The Houston Rockets are the very embodiment of efficiency. The strategy is in place. General Manager Daryl Morey is the architect, and James Harden is his agent on the court. Nothing less than three pointers, points in the paint and free throws are acceptable for this team. The aversion to the long two pointer, the alleged least efficient shot in basketball, is so great that Dwight Howard stepped back to make sure to avoid one before he sunk his third three pointer of his career on a desperation heave. The effort and chemistry may be touch and go, but the game plan is there, and the name of the game is analytics.

The Sacramento Kings just traded for Rudy Gay. Gay is a talented player and they seem to have a plan to use him next to franchise centerpiece DeMarcus Cousins. Also, Rudy Gay is shooting under 40% on the season. Gay is a shooter with no remorse, a player willing to take a shot from anywhere on the floor, no matter how many hands are in his face. Adding Gay to a team that already features volatile big man Cousins makes this Kings team fascinating, confusing, and just maybe dangerous.

Last time Rudy Gay met the Rockets, he and then-teammate DeMar DeRozan on the Toronto Raptors combined to shoot 62 times and hit 17 of them. That’s not good. Rudy was happy to try for game-winning three pointers, despite the tight defense thrown at him by Rockets head coach Kevin McHale. The Rockets will be hoping for an encore in Sacramento. McHale may not be with the team due to the recent passing of his mother, but acting head coach Kelvin Sampson has a good chance of increasing his streak to two in a row.

As always with the Kings, this may turn into a high-scoring affair. Sacramento has a lot of young, raw talent, full of fire and will to score. As with many young teams who have yet to settle on a long-term head coach and style, the Kings attack the basket and shoot with aplomb. They’ve taken the 5th most shots in the league but hit on less than 45% of them. Their offensive attempts are high, and their defensive successes are low. Rudy Gay is a capable defender in the right system, but will likely do much to turn those stats around right away.

The key matchup here is Dwight Howard vs. DeMarcus Cousins, a battle between two athletic bigs with PR problems. Both have a tendency to pick up personal fouls, and both have had problems dealing with the media. Howard seems to be settling in in Houston, limiting his foot-in-mouth stat considerably. Cousins, on the other hand, is preventing teammates from shaking hands with opponents and continuing to be the spiritual leader on a team very much in need of a new spiritual leader. Cousins, however, is a beast down low and is willing to use his strength and speed to create easy shots. Howard’s slower post game has been better as of late but is so far less effective. Howard, however, remains one of the top defensive centers in the league, and has the strength and agility necessary to slow down Cousins. It’s likely that this becomes a grueling matchup for both players.

Isaiah Thomas and Jeremy Lin will also be a fascinating battle to observe. Thomas, taken at the last spot in the draft two years ago, has been a breakout player for Sacramento, playing off the bench behind Greivis Vasquez. With Vasquez traded to Toronto, Thomas now has an opportunity to start and establish himself as a real threat. Whether he can make it as a starter-quality point guard has yet to be seen. On the other hand, Lin is a starter coming off the bench, and is a very similar player to Thomas. Both love to create and attack, and both have little regard for their own safety when they do it. Lin, somehow, may be the calmer, more solid player here, but has looked shaky in his two games back from injury.

Finally. it’s a battle of shooters as Harden meets Gay. They may do very little guarding of one another, as Harden plays the 2 and Gay plays the 3 primarily, but the two will very much be in a duel. Both are comfortable shooting at any distance, and both like to create for themselves. If Gay goads Harden into a battle of hero-ball isolation plays, there’s no telling what could happen. Harden is overall better and has a far better game on the drive than Gay, but is also willing to abandon the pick and roll offense that gives hims so much success. In a one-on-one battle between these two players, the ability to hit contested shots becomes the most important factor. When that happens, it’s a roll of the dice.

The Rockets have to find the right balance of effort to win the third game in four nights on the road. So far, they’ve been given trouble by teams lower in the standings, largely because they don’t yet know just how much they can take their foot off the pedal and still win. Treating every game like a playoff game is what the fans want, but slowly destroys the team’s bodies and endurance. There’s a balance to be found, and Houston is slowly zeroing in on it. The Rockets, if they can home in, should be able to dispatch this odd Kings team easily. but just like with their three pointers, sometimes the aim is a little off.

Tip off is at 5:00 pm Central time at the Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento, California. For more Sacramento Kings coverage, check out Cowbell Kingdom, the TrueHoop’s network’s Kings blog.

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