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Atlanta Hawks @ Houston Rockets on 11/27/2013

The third seed in the Eastern Conference is coming to Houston to take on the fifth seed Rockets, an appointment that sounds daunting for a Western Conference team on the rise, trying to prove itself as a real playoff threat. Or, it would sound daunting if the Rockets weren’t a game and a half ahead of the Hawks. Instead, the Rockets have a chance to impose a little bit more of Western Conference will on a struggling Eastern Conference, and more importantly, a chance to continue developing some nascent team chemistry.

After a groggy start to the season, including a “twin towers” period best left undiscussed, the Rockets have begun to look a little closer to mid-season form. The bench has started to show up and the shooting has begun to even out. They just won two in a row in opposite manners, from a high-percentage shootout with the Minnesota Timberwolves on to a come-from-behind defensive slugfest with the Memphis Grizzlies. Losing James Harden to a sore foot for a pair of games has actually paid dividends for Houston, a team badly in need of something to rally around.

Whether Harden suits up for tomorrow’s game is still to be decided. Houston clearly has a better shot with James Harden on the floor, but his absence has shows the team to be deeper and more resilient than expected. Jeremy Lin, Ömer Aşık, Omri Casspi, Francisco Garcia and Aaron Brooks make up a second string lineup that would be an upgrade to many teams’ starting lineups. The difficulty has been finding minutes for all the players and finding combinations that make sense.

Well, with a pair of home games against Eastern Conference opponents, Thanksgiving week is as good a time as any to be creative with the rotations. As opposed to his first two years on the job, head coach Kevin McHale seems much more willing to open the bench up and let the young guns fire this season. Donatas Motiejunas, a player who looked to be off the bench entirely, has still been the benefactor of quality minutes. Only four players have yet to see real floor time: Greg Smith due to injury (knee), Ronnie Brewer due to injury (calf), and rookies Isaiah Canaan and Robert Covington are spending time with Houston’s NBA D-League affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.

What does this mean for the game against the Hawks? Whether Harden plays or not, expect McHale to be happy to throw out different lineups until one works. Al Horford and Paul Millsap are top quality big men with a solid reserve behind them in Elton Brand. The rest of the Hawks’ roster is murkier, with sharpshooter Kyle Korver and journeyman (and onetime Rocket) DeMarre Carroll at the wings and speedster Jeff Teague running the point. The Hawks are a more solid team than their Joe Johnson/Josh Smith incarnations of yesteryear, but are still only two games above .500 in a mindbogglingly weak conference. It’s unclear how good they actually are, but they’re definitely good enough to be taken seriously by a Rockets team still establishing itself.

Can Dwight Howard impede the hot-shooting Horford and Millsap? Can Chandler Parsons outshoot and outplay Kyle Korver, a man who looks like Ashton Kucher? Who’s faster and more willing to sacrifice his body, Jeremy Lin or Jeff Teague? Which young, little known forward will look more energetic, DeMarre Carroll or Terrence Jones? Last but not least, will James Harden’s foot issues be resolved? We’ll find out the answers tomorrow at 7:00 pm central time at the Toyota Center.

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