We've got a fun divisional battle going on tonight, as the young New Orleans Hornets will visit the Houston Rockets at the Toyota Center. The Hornets are finally back at full strength, as guard and top scorer Eric Gordon is back in the lineup alongside hotshot rookie Anthony Davis.
This young squad will be tasked with stopping the Rockets, who have been on a tear of their own as of late. Not only has the team recently won five games in a row, but they defeated the always-tough Atlanta Hawks on New Year's Eve to sweep the season series. After stumbling, Houston finally appears to be gelling and getting the formula for success right.
Tonight marks the second time they will face the Hornets this season. Houston won the first matchup back on Nov. 14, and the playing field has changed since then. New Orleans is looking like a lottery team, but appears to be turning a corner thanks to rookie Anthony Davis and his young supporting cast.
Houston has looked better, but still needs to do a lot of work on defense if they are to be taken seriously down the stretch.
Just the same, it will be fun to see both teams' youth face off in what can definitely be a close game.
Time: Wednesday, Jan. 2, 8:00 p.m. EST
TV: CSN Houston, Fox Sports New Orleans
Records: New Orleans Hornets (7-24) vs. Houston Rockets (17-14)
Betting Line: New Orleans (+10), Houston (-10), via Bovada
Injuries: Eric Gordon (knee, day-to-day)
Key Storyline: Full-Strength Hornets Seek Upset in Houston
Houston and New Orleans first met as .500 teams early in the season, and their Nov. 14 game also took place at the Toyota Center. Despite the differences in their records now, their initial meeting was actually very close.
Houston came away with the 100-96 victory, thanks to 30 points from James Harden. On New Orleans' end, upstart point man Greivis Vasquez led the way with 24 points and nine assists.
Shortly after this game, New Orleans fell into some bad luck. On top of already being without Eric Gordon, rookie Anthony Davis missed 11 games with a stress reaction in his ankle. More importantly, their loss to Houston marked the beginning of a seven-game losing streak.
The Hornets have also gone on an 11-game losing streak since then, but their overall future is still bright. Davis and Gordon have the combined talent to become a viable 1-2 punch, and the production from Vasquez and sixth man Ryan Anderson will just be the icing on the cake.
All players should be active tonight, and to pull off a win against Houston's tough offense would inject so much momentum into the New Orleans lineup. If anything, it could be the start of the team turning things around.
That means beating the Rockets at home, where they have gone 12-6. It won't be easy, but the Hornets may just be feisty enough to pull it off.
Key Matchup: Jeremy Lin vs. Greivis Vasquez
The point guards play a key role in both Houston and New Orleans' offenses, and their battle tonight will definitely determine which team comes out on top.
Houston has Jeremy Lin, the Harvard grad who took the league by storm last year but initially struggled in 2012-13. He has since gotten back on track, averaging 14.4 points and seven assists, plus 2.2 steals over his last five games. Lin's field goal percentage has also risen to a respectable 44, as he has started to gel with teammate James Harden.
However, Lin could be in for a tough battle tonight when he goes up against Greivis Vasquez of New Orleans. Not only is Vasquez extremely tall for his position at 6'6", but he has become one of the league's better point men this season. He is fourth in the NBA with 8.8 assists per game, and also averages a respectable 13.6 points.
Vasquez's offense has also been borderline explosive as of late. Over his last five games, he is averaging 18.8 points and 9.6 assists to go with 6.4 rebounds.
Despite his significant size advantage against the 6'3" Lin, Vasquez could be in for a tough night. Lin is incredibly fast and absolutely perfect for Houston's run-and-gun game; and defense is not Vasquez's strongest suit.
Thus, all Vasquez must do is use his size to wear Lin out. This means driving past him and drawing fouls, plus doing his best to beat him in the paint and off the dribble.
If the Hornets can just slow Lin down and force Houston to turn to Harden, then they will become less of an underdog and increase their chances of winning as a result.
X-Factor: Ryan Anderson
Anderson is built like a big man at 6'10", 240 pounds, but is actually one of the deadliest shooters in the NBA. As the Hornets' sixth man, he has averaged 17.1 points and seven rebounds per game, and has shot a deadly 41 percent from long range.
Granted, most of his field goal attempts are 3-pointers, but that's just his greatest strength. Anderson can also play well in the paint and has a decent mid-range jumper.
With Gordon likely on a minutes limit and the rest of the offense hit-or-miss, New Orleans needs Anderson to be great tonight. He is their key to keeping up with Houston's quick offense, and his ability to score in bunches makes him all the more valuable.
It should also be noted that Anderson is the reigning Most Improved Player, and that all of his offensive averages this season are career-highs. Sure, his game may seem one-sided, but he is so committed to getting better and better as a player.
He must carry this attitude with him against Houston tonight, lest he want to come out on the losing end.
The Hornets will keep the score close against Houston once again, but will fall just short of victory. Though most of the regulars are back in action, New Orleans still has a lot to learn about playing together as a strong unit, something the Rockets have been for the past couple of weeks.
James Harden will once again lead the way in scoring, and Chandler Parsons will sink the key 3-pointer that ices the game for Houston. Jeremy Lin, despite his recent tear, will not be able to handle the size of Vasquez and thus be forced to rack up the assists rather than points.
Who will win?
On New Orleans' end, Anthony Davis will help keep the game interesting with his work in the paint. He will block shots, grab rebounds and score points en route to showcasing just how much of a future he has on the professional level.
Helping Davis out will be Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon, whose collective offense will give the Hornets a fighting chance entering the fourth quarter. Greivis Vasquez will do a great job of finding the open man, and will also be able to hold his own by making some key layups in the early minutes of the final frame.
Unfortunately for New Orleans, Houston will just want the win more. Despite being weak on defense and ranking last in points allowed, the Rockets' offense is just too talented and experienced.
Everyone's ability to score quickly will ultimately help Houston pull away in the fourth quarter, but mark my words. New Orleans will put up a great fight despite its weak record, and teams will no longer underestimate the young Hornets as a result.
Houston Rockets 104, New Orleans Hornets 99