The Rockets’ poor play against weak opposition is what separates them from the upper echelons of the Western Conference standings at the moment. Compare Houston’s pedestrian 7-5 record against teams below .400 (note, that’s worse than their record versus everyone else!) against San Antonio (12-1), Oklahoma City (10-1) or Portland (13-2) and you can see that if the team could only be that clinical against inferior opponents they would be up right up there with those three battling it out for the top seed. So tonight is a chance to fix the trend of playing down to their opposition as they take on a basement dweller that has bested them on two separate occasions this season – the Sacramento Kings.
The only blip in a sea of Ws was the now infamous OKC collapse game. Of the four, only the win on Monday against Portland showcased the team really clicking.
Two of those losses were against Indiana and OKC, so it’s not as bad as it looks. It’s still not great though, especially considering that Rudy Gay is supposed to be elevating the level of this team. They just came off a game in New Orleans last night (where, to be fair, Gay played very well) and so are unlikely to be running at 100%.
Still no Asik (knee) or Smith (knee), and Jones is a game-time decision (that probably means ‘no’) with a thigh bruise. Garcia is also out with, you guessed it, a knee injury. There seems to be an epidemic at the moment.
No players missing for the Kings, who like Portland on Monday have been largely unaffected by the league-wide injury bug. Our old friend Carl Landry has recently returned from a hip injury, giving the Kings another front court option to throw against the Rockets’ undermanned front line.
- In theory, the Rockets should be able to carve the Kings up with ease on this end of the court. Sacramento’s key weakness is that they are the worst team in the league at defending the three point line – teams shoot an average of 38.7% from behind the arc against them. It remains to be seen whether the Rockets will be able to get anywhere near the blistering shooting numbers they put up on Monday, but there should be plenty of open looks tonight.
- Isaiah Thomas is undersized at the point guard position and in theory Lin and Beverley should be able to exploit this to get into the paint at will. Jimmer Fredette’s lack of lateral quickness should allow similar amounts of penetration.
- Dwight Howard has not had huge success against the Kings this season. He has scored 15 and 13 in the two matchups while committing a combined 8 turnovers and shooting 10-24 from the line (41.7%). DeMarcus Cousins still doesn’t have a great defensive reputation, but similar to Harden tends to be more focused for one-on-one matchups like Dwight and has made it difficult for him in the past.
- Rudy Gay and DeMarcus Cousins might be the ones getting paid the big bucks, but Isaiah Thomas is the player on this team you have to be afraid of. He uses his speed to get wherever he wants on the court and can wreak havoc on the shape of opposing defences pretty much at will. In the last meeting he gave Lin fits and set the table for the win. Beverley may fare a little better but to be honest I think Thomas is probably still too quick for him as well.
- It is essential that Motiejunas stays out of foul trouble tonight. The lack of frontcourt options means that if he is forced to sit with silly fouls McHale may have to turn playing Omri Casspi at centre. One area where Sacramento has the edge over Portland is that their backup bigs are better. I would back Carl Landry and Derrick Williams to do a better job of taking advantage of a match-up like that than Thomas Robinson or Meyers Leonard, so I don’t think the Rockets will be able to get away with it twice in a row.
- Howard has been struggling with a touch of Samuel Dalembert syndrome recently, by which I mean that he has been giving up offensive rebounds and tip-ins because he tries for weakside blocks he has no chance of getting. Sacramento are a decent offensive rebounding team (11th in the league), and because they run with two traditional bigs most of the time they’ve got the personnel to make him pay for it. Hopefully he can keep his discipline tonight.
Jason Thompson has been a solid performer for the Kings for years, fighting off all comers to keep his starting spot. His secret is that he is an above average pick-and-roll defender (38th in the league according to mySynergySports), an invaluable skill for an otherwise defensively inept team. He’s also a surprisingly effective post-up player on the occasions he is featured on the block (0.9 PPP is 39th in the league).