The New Orleans Hornets appear to be hitting a hot streak. After wins over the Dallas Mavericks and ever-dangerous San Antonio Spurs, the team will have a grudge match against the division rival Houston Rockets tonight, this time at New Orleans Arena.
Both teams last squared off on January 2, but in Houston. New Orleans lost, but played overall excellent defense. The Rockets may have won, but left the game knowing that they had been forced out of their comfort zone and that the Hornets, despite being in last place, were a talented young team capable of playing some great ball.
Based on New Orleans' budding winning streak, Houston had better have a plan going into tonight. The Hornets are going to have a lot of momentum after defeating the Spurs, and the Rockets' hot streak could very well be in jeopardy.
In a battle of young teams, and also one of offense vs. defense, this game should not be written off as a snoozer. Despite the grand difference in the teams' record, this one has the potential to be quite close.
Time: Wednesday, January 9th, 8 p.m. EST
TV: CSN Houston, Fox Sports New Orleans
Records: Houston Rockets (21-14) vs. New Orleans Hornets (9-25)
Betting Line: Houston (-3), New Orleans (+3)
Injuries: Chandler Parsons (illness, day-to-day)
Key Storyline: Can Rockets Control Game in New Orleans?
As I mentioned before, the Rockets were way out of their comfort zone the last time they faced New Orleans. A run-and-gun team, they were forced to play a slowed down isolation game. As a result, Houston shot just under 21 percent from three-point range.
Just the same, the team pulled out a 104-92 victory thanks to 31 points and seven assists from James Harden and 21 points from Omer Asik. On New Orleans' end, Ryan Anderson led with 18 points while Greivis Vasquez chipped in 15 of his own, plus 14 assists.
The Rockets also committed 11 turnovers that game, and must have a better plan entering New Orleans Arena. As inexperienced as the Hornets are, it should be noted that they did not have star scorer Eric Gordon that night at the Toyota Center. It was the second game of a back-to-back, and he is still slowly working his way back from a knee injury.
Gordon is still getting his legs back, but has averaged 18.3 points since coming back to the lineup. The Rockets will need to be prepared to slow him down tonight and also find a way to get past the Hornets defense. This means using the run-and-gun as often as possible and not being forced into isolation.
In doing so, Houston's streak may continue. Otherwise, their momentum can and will shift to the Big Easy.
Key Matchup: James Harden vs. Eric Gordon
Though the Hornets are the underdog heading into this game, they have an extra attacker who was not present for the previous two meetings against the Rockets. Had Eric Gordon played in the game back on January 2, New Orleans very likely would have won the game. After all, 18.3 points per game is nothing to sneeze at, despite a low-field goal percentage of 35 percent.
Fortunately for Houston, James Harden plays excellent defense. On top of his 26.4 points (fourth in the NBA), 5.3 assists and 4.2 rebounds per game, the reigning Sixth Man of the Year also posts two steals per contest. Against a natural scorer like Gordon, that statistic will be key.
The fact of the matter is that New Orleans will be relying on Gordon to be their offensive spark tonight, and Houston will rely on Harden to take him out of the game. The Hornets' problem for most of the season has been the lack of a natural scoring spark, and Gordon having a bad game leaves them without that. Even though his percentages are not what they should be right now, the fact remains that he is the team's best scorer and without him, New Orleans becomes much weaker.
Gordon must also do all he can to stop Harden, but he is not as strong a defender, plus is two inches shorter at 6'3". Based on skill set alone, Harden will likely slash past Gordon and/or fake him out off the dribble. The former Hoosier still must put in his best effort against Houston, as slowing down Harden is the key to making the Rockets earn the victory.
By making them earn the victory, their weak defense is exposed, and the Hornets' chances of pulling off the upset grow.
X-Factor: Anthony Davis
Davis is the reigning No. 1 pick and has proved this season that the Hornets made the right decision in drafting him. Despite missing a number of games with first a concussion and then a stress reaction in his ankle, the former Kentucky Wildcat has posted 13.7 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game.
Davis' performance against Houston on January 2 was less than inspiring, as he had just eight points and seven rebounds over 27 minutes of play. It was one game of a recent slump, as Davis has only averaged 9.2 points, eight rebounds and 1.8 blocks his last five games.
Fortunately, Davis has the home-court advantage tonight and is going up against a fairly weak defender in second-year man Marcus Morris. He has the height advantage, standing 6'10" to Morris' 6'9", and has the natural talent on defense to control their battle from start to finish.
Morris is only averaging 9.2 points and 4.2 rebounds, so he could definitely be in for a long game. All he can really do is bank on Davis having another bad scoring night, otherwise he and the Rockets face an uphill battle.
Davis needs to show that he is the No. 1 pick for a reason, and a solid performance against Houston would help serve as a great reminder to any doubters.
The Hornets have lost to the Rockets twice this season, but only by a combined margin of 16 points. Now that the battle has shifted from the Toyota Center to New Orleans Arena, Houston's hot streak is about to come to an end.
The Hornets will bring the same tough defensive mindset they had against the Rockets on January 2, and the presence of Gordon will help keep the game much closer. His percentages may be a bit off again on the night, but his effort plus a better night from Anthony Davis will help extend New Orleans' winning streak to three.
Who will win?
Houston will still put up a great fight. Harden will lead in scoring and Asik in rebounds, and Chandler Parsons will sink some key three-pointers to keep the Rockets in the hunt for the win from opening tip to the final buzzer. They are still the better team on paper and will play accordingly throughout the night.
Unfortunately, the Hornets will just want the game more. It is their home turf and their home crowd cheering them on, and their commitment to shutting Houston down will bring home the victory.
New Orleans Hornets 102, Houston Rockets 98