After stumbling out of the starting gate, the Houston Rockets appear to have gotten on track. The team has won four of its last five, including a key victory over the New York Knicks on December 17. More importantly, Jeremy Lin appears to have recaptured some of the lightning from last season's Linsanity.
The Harvard grad has posted just 12.4 points and 5.8 assists over his last five games, but his field goal percentage over that stretch is a highly respectable 52 percent. This bodes well for Lin, who has struggled with his scoring all season long, as his field goal percentage for the season has risen to 42.
He'll have quite a big test tonight. His Rockets take on the Memphis Grizzlies, who have continued their improvement streak and are currently tied for first place in the Southwest Division.
These teams faced off early in the season on November 9, and Memphis managed to eke out a 93-85 victory. Star forward Rudy Gay led the charge with 21 points, while Zach Randolph chipped in 15 points and 14 rebounds.
Houston's bug-a-boo that night was turnovers, having committed 20, but they are playing like a new team now. The Rockets are communicating, executing and just playing some good basketball. They are realizing their potential, and head coach Kevin McHale could be sitting on a gold mine down the stretch.
Tonight's test against Memphis thus becomes all the more important. If Houston's new balanced approach can keep things close again, maybe even beat the Grizzlies, then they could be a team to watch once the second half of the season begins.
Time: Saturday, December 22, 8:00 p.m. EST
TV: CSN Houston, SportSouth
Records: Memphis Grizzlies (18-6) vs. Houston Rockets (13-12)
Betting Lines: PIck'em, via Bovada
Injuries: Patrick Patterson (foot, out)
Key Storyline: Newly Balanced Houston Seeks to Avenge Early Season Loss Against Memphis
The Rockets and Grizzlies are both balanced teams, and that will make tonight's game fun to watch for a couple of reasons.
First, it is a clash of philosophies. Kevin McHale employs a run-and-gun style in Houston, while Memphis coach Lionel Hollins is all about defense.
Not surprisingly, the Rockets rank second in points scored with 104.8 per game while the Grizzlies are first in points allowed at a mere 89.5 per contest.
It will also be interesting to see how both teams match up when fully locked in. The Rockets have a lot of depth, and the whole team working together as a cohesive unit and performing well is critical to their defeating Memphis at the Toyota Center.
Seeing as how Memphis does not have much of a bench, this should not be a problem. The Grizzlies heavily rely on their starters for most of the team's production, and that could come back to bite them if Houston is running on all cylinders tonight.
Just the same, the Rockets are still a young team learning how to play together while Memphis' core group knows each other well. Experience is always key, and will definitely play a role in the end result of this game.
Of course, with Houston looking to extend its winning streak to three games, that could all change depending on whose shots fall and whose don't.
Key Matchup: James Harden vs. Tony Allen
Turnovers were not all that killed the Houston Rockets' chances of victory against Memphis the first time around. Star guard James Harden was also unable to fight past the tight defense of Grizzlies pest Tony Allen.
Harden was able to score 18 points against Memphis, but shot just 4-of-18 from the field. He also turned the ball over five times, an area that has dogged him all season long (3.7 per game).
That was just one game, however, and Harden has still been a great addition for the Rockets. He currently ranks fourth in the NBA at 25.4 points per game and has also posted 5.3 assists, 4.5 rebounds and 1.8 steals. The man is a catalyst for the Rockets on both sides of the floor, and his teammates will need him to be just that if a victory against the Memphis Grizzlies is in the cards.
This means Harden must put in a greater effort in getting past Allen's defense, which is no easy task. Allen made the All-Defensive First Team last season, and is averaging 1.9 steals per game this season.
Hollins is going to expect him to do just what he did to Harden on November 9: take him out of the game completely. He is Houston's most consistent scorer, and losing him immediately decreases its chances of winning. In games in which Harden has shot below 40 percent from the field, the Rockets have gone 2-8.
The reigning Sixth Man of the Year will thus need to be fully locked in against Memphis this time, as his team needs him to perform offensively in order to win. His lack of consistency and the team's 20 turnovers sunk them against Memphis the first time, and he will just need to fight harder against Allen tonight and hope for the best.
X-Factor: Chandler Parsons
Should Harden struggle, Parsons will have to step up and take over on offense. The former Florida Gator has continued to improve in his second NBA season, averaging 15 points and 6.5 rebounds per game. Parsons has also shot 45 percent from the field and 36 percent from three-point range, slowly establishing himself as an up-and-coming scorer and leader in the NBA.
Best of all is that Parsons can score from practically anywhere on the floor. He has multiple sweet spots and is slowly learning how to create his own shot.
The only problem with Parsons is that over Houston's recent stretch, he has been fairly quiet. He is averaging just 12.6 points and 6.6 rebounds over his last five games, though he has upped his defense to the tune of 2.2 steals over that course as well.
Against a tough Grizzlies defense, regardless of whether or not Harden is struggling, Parsons must demand the ball. He and Harden have the combined talent and ability to become Houston's deadly scoring punch, with a fine guard in Lin getting each of them the ball.
Parsons can also be more than just a scorer for the Rockets. He has good size at 6'9", 227 pounds and does a good job of driving to the basket and drawing fouls.
Houston will need him to do that and more against Memphis. The only way to beat their top-ranked defense is to refuse to give up, which means not being afraid to take hard shots and get banged up under the basket.
As the team's best scorer outside of Harden, Parsons needs to be willing to be that guy from start to finish. If he can do that and also keep up his defense, then the Rockets can easily pull off an upset.
Just as they did in their first meeting with Memphis, the Rockets will manage to keep the score close from beginning to end. Unfortunately, they will still fail to come out on top.
Houston is still just too young and inconsistent to get past an elite Grizzlies defense, and Memphis' youth will prove to want the win more. Mike Conley and Jeremy Lin will go toe-to-toe at the point just like they did last time, and their battle will end in a stalemate.
To the Rockets' credit, James Harden will indeed have a better performance tonight than he did in Houston's first game against Memphis. He will score, play defense and create plays that will keep his team in the hunt for the win, and the Grizzlies will have a hard time slowing him down.
Who will win?
This will still not be enough, as the lack of Patrick Patterson will prove to be too much for the Rockets. Zach Randolph will continue to be a rebounding machine and have a double-double, and Marc Gasol will prove to be a tough matchup as well, not to mention Rudy Gay.
Houston's offense will thus turn into the Harden and Parsons show, and we all know what happens when a team becomes overly reliant on two players to shoulder the load. The Rockets will simply not be able to execute much offense beyond this duo, and the Grizzlies will take full advantage.
The score may read like a close game, but the underlying statistics will be crystal clear. Memphis controlled this game from start to finish, and the Rockets will not soon forget it.
Memphis Grizzlies 104, Houston Rockets 98