New Orleans Hornets @ Houston Rockets on 1/2/13

The Houston Rockets host the New Orleans Hornets for Houston’s first game of 2013. Coming out of a flurry of changing expectations, the Rockets now look ahead not to a face-off against a fellow rebuilding team, but come into the evening as a projected playoff team. Instead of simply growth and development, the Rockets are under pressure to produce a win, and a big one at that. But in the wild Western Conference, nothing is a given.

The Hornets, fresh off a disappointing home loss to the Atlanta Hawks, look to improve their fates and pick up their 8th win on the season. While their record looks to give them a fighting chance at picking first overall again in the 2013 NBA Draft, they have some reason to be hopeful for the balance of their season. Anthony Davis, while not sewing up the Rookie of the Year award as much as many expected, he’s had a solid rookie year, averaging over 14 points and 8 rebounds a game, as well as an 11th best 1.9 blocks per game.Perhaps more importantly, Eric Gordon is in the early stages of his return to the NBA. He’s worked his way back up to 24 minutes a game, and his minutes restriction and bench status are under re-examination.

The more minutes Eric Gordon plays, the greater a chance for the Hornets to deliver a blow to the Rockets and their newfound relevance. While he may have preferred to accept a maximum contract from the Phoenix Suns, he has a lot to prove to New Orleans and to the world. While his game against the Hawks on the 1st was lacking (11 points on 5-17 shooting), he had a dangerous 24 point, 25 minute game against the Bobcats. When the Rockets and the Hornets face off, two young, high-price shooting guards will face off in Harden and Gordon. Both seem to be auditioning for the part of 2-guard of the future, but so far Gordon has barely had a chance to try.

The two teams resemble each other in a few more ways, as well. Rookie guard Austin Rivers straddles the line between point guard and shooting guard, leading him to be used as a combination scorer and ball-handler. The same could be said of Jeremy Lin, and especially backup guard Toney Douglas, who seems to be quietly shifting to a 2-guard role for Houston.

Both teams feature a young big man who can patrol the paint, grab rebounds and snag a few points. Anthony Davis leads Asik in points and blocks (14 to 11 and 1.9  to 1.1 respectively), but Asik is fourth in the league in rebounds with an impressive 11.8 a game. Asik’s size and Davis’ agility make them both formidable defenders inside, and both are young enough to have offensive upside.

Both teams entered the season as rebuilding teams, with the Hornets looking to be further along the path. New Orleans already snagged a top draft pick, a top young scorer, and a pile of young, cheap prospects. All that was left was to start developing and wait for the growth. The Rockets, on the other hand, acquired their star, assembled their youth players, developed their system and balanced their checkbook in the span of two scant months. What could have been a showdown at the bottom of the pile instead looks likely to be a rout.

Starting December 17th in New York, the Rockets have picked up a habit of blowing their opponents out of the building, with the notable exceptions of a difficult game won against the Timberwolves in Minnesota, and two nasty losses to San Antonio and Oklahoma City. The Rockets rallied after two losses on a back to back to put away the Eastern Conference 3rd seed hawks with aplomb. As the Rockets’ power rankings climb, so do their expectations. Anything less than a domination against the Hornets will sting.

With their full team coming into place, and an 8-6 history against the Rockets for the past 4 seasons, the Hornets are a team to take seriously, despite their record. The Rockets not only have had trouble against fellow Western Conference teams this season (a grim 5-12 so far), but had difficulty against the Hornets earlier in the year, beating them 100-96 in Houston on November 14th. The Rockets have certainly improved since then, but the Hornets were missing their star shooting guard at the time.

While the Hornets have a predominantly young team that should theoretically be able to keep their breath in a track meet, in practice they play at the most viscous pace in the NBA, barely topping 90 possessions a game. The Rockets bring over 9 more possessions a game, and the team that forces their pace on the other is liable to have a smooth evening. Houston has lately proven up to the task of leaving slower teams on their heels, and the Hornets are liable to be sluggish on a back to back.

Nothing is ever certain in the NBA, however, and Eric Gordon looks poised to have a large night in Houston. In a series of big wins, it’s gone largely unnoticed that whoever James Harden guards seems to have a big night lately. Whether this is poor man defense, lapses in communication, or simply players giving him 110% is up to debate, but the door is open for Gordon to try to show Harden up, even if it’s in a loss.

As the Rockets try to shore up their conference and division numbers, Rockets fans have many reasons to expect another fireball from the scorching hot Rockets. But Houston has to stay hungry if they want to keep the streak up; any team in the NBA can win, especially when you least expect it.

Royce White remains inactive. Patrick Patterson is active but may not start. Tip off is scheduled for 7:00 pm central time on Wednesday, January 2nd 2013 at the Toyota Center in Houston, Texas.

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