After three days off, a hopefully rejuvenated Rockets team takes on the Nuggets at home. A three day break is an eternity in NBA terms, and McHale will have been using the rare opportunity for extended practice time to work out some wrinkles in both the offensive and defensive sets. The extra time for the newcomers from OKC to get accustomed to their new team mates should also have been useful. It will be interesting to see if that increased familiarity will help Houston cut down on their turnovers – after three games, they are averaging nearly 20 per game. It feels like this break has come at the perfect time for the team, letting everyone (fans included) sit back and take stock of what were a memorable first three games and providing time to get ready for the long haul ahead.
On the other side of the ball, Denver will be coming in having played at home against Detroit the night before. No three day break for them! To compound matters, it seems that coach George Karl has settled on a fairly tight rotation. On Sunday night against the Heat, he used only 8 players, though in light of the back-to-back (and perhaps the relative strength of the opposition) he may choose to go a bit deeper into his bench for these two games. In any case, Houston’s fresh legs should be a useful advantage as the game wears on.
Against the Heat, the Nuggets used an 8 man rotation of Lawson-Iguodala-Faried-Gallinari-Koufos, with Miller, Brewer and McGee off the bench. They may or may not also have Wilson Chandler, depending on how his rehabilitation from off-season knee surgery. He’s being held out of back-to-backs, but Coach Karl may decide to save him for Houston rather than play him against Detroit at home. There’s a deep bench waiting there to be used though if they want – Jordan Hamilton and Evan Fournier have seen the odd minute here or there, and Mozgov is around if they want to change up the front court. If you’re lucky, you might see a rare Anthony Randolph sighting too!
The Nuggets present perhaps the toughest individual matchups the Rockets have faced so far this season. James Harden has cut to pieces everyone that has been put on him so far, but Andre Iguodala is one of if not THE premier wing defender in the league. When Iggy goes to the bench, they can replace him with Corey Brewer, another very good defensive player. It would seem prudent then for Houston to be prepared to rely less on Harden for scoring quite as much as they have in previous games. The onus will be on the other starters to provide some scoring punch, something they have struggled with thus far.
Fortunately, Denver’s defence has been relatively porous thus far, Iguodala aside. Apart from Ty Lawson, they have a pretty big starting lineup – Iguodala (6’6” with wingspan), Faried (6’8” with motor), Gallinari (6’10”) and Koufos (7’0”), but with that size comes a slight deficit in mobility around the perimeter. In addition, none of their big men are particularly adept on the defensive end. Kosta Koufos is probably the most solid, but as Aaron McGuire over at Gothic Ginobili points out (if you aren’t reading his player capsule series, you should be – it’s the most impressive labour of basketball love I’ve had the pleasure of reading and is packed full of useful and informative nuggets about every player in the league) that’s not saying much. Unfortunately, his primary weakness is one-on-one defence, but we don’t really have the offensively skilled big men available to take advantage of that. As fun as it would be to watch at first, a series of Omer Asik post-ups will not end well. McGee (who’ll be coming off the bench) will get a couple of spectacular blocks, but his low defensive IQ makes him a liability on the 95% of possessions that don’t end that way. Faried is still raw and his defensive numbers were atrocious last season – opposing teams scored 107.1 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor.
Based on that scouting report, the key for Houston will be to force the big men to rotate and make tough decisions. A lot of that boils down to whether Jeremy Lin can penetrate in a controlled fashion – if he can keep the out-of-control layup attempts and wild passes in traffic to a minimum, then the Rockets should have a good chance of exploiting that weakness. The slow speed on the rotations should mean that Parsons and Delfino have plenty of open looks from the corners if the ball movement is crisp enough. Harden’s playmaking skills will come into play here – I expect him to look to facilitate a bit more than he has in the first few games now that he has had a bit more court time with his new team mates. And of course, given the rest disparity I’d expect the Rockets to try to run a lot.
As explained by Zach Lowe at Grantland, Denver’s lack of three point shooting threats means that it is relatively straightforward for teams to clog the paint. Only Ty Lawson and Danilo Gallinari are respectable three-point threats (and Gallinari has been liquid nitrogen cold so far, shooting only 17% from behind the arc). Assuming the coaches have done their homework, expect the defence to sag inwards to prevent penetration from the blazing fast Lawson.
Iguodala and Gallinari can both put the ball on the floor, and their size could cause one or two issues. Parsons will only be able to guard one at a time, after all! Harden will probably take Iguodala, which will be an interesting defensive test for him. Iggy may not have three point range, but he does have a penchant for the pull-up jumper from the elbow and has the speed and strength to get their pretty easily.
Faried is an absolute menace on the offensive glass – he thrives on put backs and stealing rebounds from under the noses of unexpected defenders. He has developed a nice little baseline jumper (not quite to the range Patterson has, but respectable out to about 8-10 feet), but you have to be careful closing out too quick because he has the first step to blow by his defender.
Off the bench, the one you want to keep your eye on is Miller, the ancient post-up master. At age 36, he has perfected the art of the point-guard post-up, so Lin and Douglas will need to be ready for it when it comes. McGee will fill a similar role to Faried, with less hustle but more length. Though he seems to have cut down on being quite so boneheaded since arriving in Denver, he has a reputation from his Washington days of occasionally trying to take on too much on the offensive end. It is definitely in Houston’s interest to try to bait him into the odd jumper, which he is unlikely to make. Brewer will shoot the three frequently (averaging more than 6 attempts per game so far this season), but he’s a career 30% shooter so most nights you’ll be more than happy with that.
With the advantage of fresh legs, the Rockets are in a great position to come away with the win. If Harden can overcome the attentions of their one defensive superstar in Iguodala, the rest of the team should be able to feast on an otherwise poor Nuggets defence. And if the Rockets know to play off the Nuggets’ poor three point shooters they should be able to make life difficult on the defensive end.