After the challenge of facing off with the defending champions, the Rockets’ next task is a team from the opposite end of the NBA spectrum. Before the season started, it wouldn’t have seemed wholly unreasonable to predict that the Hornets would lose as many games as the Heat would win. New Orleans have made a mostly promising start to their season though, racing out to a 3-2 start. They arrive at Houston on the back of four days of rest, so don’t expect any tired legs here!
The Hornets’ strength is their frontcourt. They’ve put together a very solid big man rotation with Robin Lopez and Anthony Davis starting while Ryan Anderson and Jason Smith come off the bench. All of these guys provide slightly different skill sets which work together nicely. If only they had some decent backcourt players, they’d be in business, but unfortunately for them that side of the court is sadly underpowered. Greivis Vasquez will start at PG flanked by Austin Rivers and Al-Farouq Aminu. Off the bench, you’ll see Brian Roberts as the backup point along with Roger Mason Jr. and Darius Miller. The Hornets are hoping to see development from all of the young guys there, and in time perhaps this strategy will pay off, but for the time being it leaves them bereft of consistent scoring punch. It might be different were Eric Gordon around, but he has been slow to recover from his latest injury.
As far as I know Sampson will continue to run the show with McHale away. With Machado, Motiejunas and White (or at least, they’re planning to send him down there) assigned to the D-League, the end of the bench has been trimmed somewhat. The decision not to send Jones down to Rio Grande Valley signals that the plan is to continue giving him spot minutes. Maybe we’ll get to see him play against his college team mate at the PF position a bit. Though we saw signs that McHale was losing patience with Douglas before he left and replaced him in the rotation with Cook, Sampson has been more willing to play him. Douglas has managed to lift his level of performance slightly over the past couple of games, and the team has been a surprising +26 when he has been on the court. That statistic probably says more about the improvement from the rest of the bench than him, but nevertheless his defence has been solid and he has been making fewer facepalm plays than in the first few games.
Thus far New Orleans have had the #7 defence in the league based on points per 100 possessions. You don’t normally associate young squads like this with defence, but Monty Williams has a reputation as having developed a sound and easy-to-pick up defensive scheme that his players seem to have bought into thus far. The Hornets play at the slowest pace in the league, and a big part of that is that they work hard to make their opponents shoot late in the shot clock.
Houston has struggled so far against teams with athletic front courts that can block shots – witness Portland and Denver’s block parties (Memphis managed to block 8 shots too). This is mainly due to Harden and Lin being slightly too predictable in their shot release when driving to the hole. Why is this relevant? Well you may have heard about the young kid with hair in all the wrong parts of his face in the Hornets frontcourt. Davis will be hanging around trying to block everything he can, and likely succeeding often. Aminu is also a threat in this area – he’s got very nice athleticism and a huge 7’3” wingspan.
To counteract New Orleans’ appetite for the block, it will be key that Harden and Lin are able to dish to the big man in traffic. The weak-side help should leave an open man, it’s just a question of whether that man can receive the ball and finish. Trusting Asik to do this is still a risky proposition, unfortunately. His improved free-throw shooting is a great start (8-11 against the Heat last night was fantastic!), but that can only do so much good when his at rim percentage is so poor.
This is not a very easy team to shoot three pointers against, which does not bode well given the Rockets’ generally poor shooting from beyond the arc thus far. The Hornets have only allowed opponents to shoot 27.8% from three, good for third in the league. While there were signs of improvement against the Heat, this is still a team with only one consistent outside threat at the moment (Delfino). It remains to be seen if Parsons and Morris can continue to stroke it from the outside. It would be useful if Harden recovers from his shooting slump too. After those red hot first couple of games he has shot only 5-29 from distance. Turning that around will go some way to keeping the Rockets’ offence flowing properly, and will make his driving game a bit easier.
For all that the Hornets’ defence has been good so far, their offence has been awful. They hit rock bottom last week against the 76ers, scoring only 62 points. And there’s a very obvious reason why this is happening – abysmal three point shooting. Their 28.9% mark is the second worst in the league. When you look at their starting line up, you don’t see a single above-average outside shooter. In fact, collectively their starters have shot 3-25 on three pointers. Most of that is because of Vasquez, who at a career 30% has the best numbers of that group. Key to defending him, then, is to force him to shoot from the outside. The horrible spacing that comes as a result of these numbers should make the Rockets’ defence look really good.
The one thing the starters do have is a very nice pick and roll combination. Vasquez and Davis have looked very effective so far working together, and late game this will be their go to play. Vasquez tries to put up the lob for Davis to finish at every opportunity, often with spectacular results.
Off the bench, you’ll see a bit more offense. Ryan Anderson will come in and can stroke it from distance, and Roger Mason and Darius Miller have looked passable from beyond the arc too. Brian Roberts is an instant offence type of guy who can look great when he’s got it going, but awful if his shot isn’t falling. He reminds me of what Douglas was expected to bring to Houston off the bench but hasn’t shown so far.
The Hornets don’t do transition a whole lot because they are not very good at forcing turnovers (25th in the league). But when they do you can count on Al-Farouq Aminu to do something crowd-pleasing. He’s got a great motor and likes to run the floor.
Key here for the Rockets will be maintaining the intensity against much less illustrious opposition. There’s bound to be a comedown when there aren’t any All Stars on the other end of the court. But they should have an easy time of keeping the Hornets’ scoring in check provided they can keep their focus.
This is likely to be a low scoring, grind-it-out type of game. Slow pace and good defences will do that to you. The Rockets will suffer some bruised egos from getting their shots blocked, but should ultimately emerge victorious as they suffocate the Hornets at the other end of the court.