Preview: Memphis Grizzlies @ Houston Rockets

After a two week honeymoon following that exciting overtime game against the Spurs, the Rockets now have to face a vicious schedule that starts with the Grizzlies and takes them on the road for 15 of their next 23 games. As the Rockets prepare for a deluge of teams currently in the playoff race (15 of the next 23, again) they start the stretch with one of the most brutal opponents out there: the 17-6 division rival Memphis Grizzlies.

The good news is that the Grizzlies rank 16th in offensive efficiency (101.5), while the Rockets hold onto 8th (104.4). The bad news is that while the Rockets give up 103.6 per 100 possessions in the 20th spot, the Grizzlies top that list with a mind-blowing 95.6. If the previous matchup against the Grizzlies is any indication (Rockets lost 93-85), it’s going to be an ugly loss. Hopefully, the Rockets can show some of their newfound scoring efficiency and make this precious home game count against a conference they just can’t seem to handle.

They’ve only won 3 of their 13 Western Conference matchups so far, and that’s not a number you want to see for a team in the west. The Rockets have so far split their conference matchups fairly evenly (13 west vs 12 east), but that won’t hold up as the season progresses and they have to finish out their 16 division rival games. Houston’s feasted on a weaker Eastern Conference (which is winning only 40% of cross-conference matchups), and seems to be gaining valuable experience from it. However, Saturday’s face-off with the Grizzlies is about as rude an awakening as you could get for a team that’s still building chemistry and confidence.

Much as the Rockets seem to have a favorable matchup against the Knicks, the Grizzlies look like poison for the Rockets. The Rockets play a high-speed, cutting style that relies on flashes to the rim and kick-outs to open jumpers. James Harden has been amazing in that mode, and he’s shown himself to be hugely skilled at drawing fouls with his euro-stepping habits. Unfortunately, the Grizzlies are a team that seem designed to shut down the NBA of the 2000s and enforce a style straight out of the 1990s. Gasol and Randolph chew up anything that strays near the basket, leaving crushed layups and pulped drives underfoot. Tony Allen remains one of the most effective perimeter defenders in the League, closing out on shooters and sticking to cutters to blunt their slashers. To top it all off, the refs seem to be more willing to let play get physical in the paint this year. While it’s certainly not a bias toward one team, this tends to work in the Grizzlies’ favor.

Teams that muscle the Rockets tend to have success against them, with the Grizzlies having done it once previous this season, and the Thunder following suit. This Houston team is still young, with all the inconsistency and lack of savvy that entails. They’re learning a new offense and a new defense, and when they get physically pushed out of position and out of sync, it shows. The Grizzlies are at the peak of their abilities, and they know how to make a basketball game into a mosh pit. Don’t be surprised if Asik, Lin and Harden come down hard on the parquet tonight; Marc Gasol doesn’t take any prisoners in the paint, nor should he.

The hope for the Rockets lies in, as the saying goes, “Imposing their will.” The Grizzlies play at a glacial 93.3 possessions per game, and if they manage to slow the Rockets, their defenses are liable to dig in and shut Houston down. The Rockets absolutely must run, run, run, and run. They’ve shown an ever-increasing desire to do so, and they top the league with a feverish 99 possessions per game. If they can force turnovers (which they can) and keep their own turnovers down (which they usually can’t), they have a chance to play Rockets ball and get the veterans tuckered out.

The new development of Toney Douglas as a shooter more than a ball-handler seems to give the Rockets another glimmer of hope, as Lin and Harden both excel in the pick-and-roll, and having one on the floor at all times gives them more chances to prey upon second units. The Rockets bench needs to be a force of lead generation, not lead loss. Greg Smith’s emergence in the past weeks should also help to make the bench more effective against a quite decent backup group from Memphis.

The Grizzlies do have weaknesses, of course, and the biggest among those is an unwillingness to shoot threes. They only shoot 18% of their shots from deep, though they actually convert at a fairly decent 36.6%. The Rockets’ defense of the three point line continues to be spotty at best, but if the Grizzlies fail to take advantage of that situation, the Rockets may have one of their weaknesses factored out of the matchup. The Grizzlies also rely heavily on post ups, which Omer Asik has shown to be able to defend decently well.

X factors like Rudy Gay and Mike Conley complicate issues, however, with either or both liable to have a huge game against a shaky perimeter defense. Parsons has slowed a little on defense, and Gay has shown flashes of brutal skill this season. Assuming Parsons guards Gay (which seems obvious, but McHale’s choices are sometimes unconventional), this game may become a litmus test for where his Parsons’ defense is at. Conley vs Lin also has the potential to support or deny assertions about Lin’s place in the point guard hierarchy, and even ongoing discussions of Morey’s trade for Lowry all those years ago.

If they Rockets have truly made strides in their offense, the Rockets have a chance against a truly formidable Western Conference power. It should be an exciting game to see how much this young team has learned in such a short time, and to see if they have the mental and physical endurance it takes to claw into the playoffs in the Western Conference. It’s easy to forget, as this team keeps pace with a +.500 season, that just a few weeks ago most pundits had them pegged to finish near the bottom of the lottery.

Patrick Patterson remains inactive with a foot bone bruise, and will likely miss 2 more weeks. Royce White remains inactive as well. Tip off is scheduled for 7:00 pm central time on Saturday, December 22nd, 2012 at Toyota Center in Houston.

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