A battle for state pride once again takes place tonight, when the Houston Rockets take on the Dallas Mavericks for the second time this season. Houston has lost four straight, while Dallas has won three in a row. This game is going to be intense for both sides, which should make for a close final score.
It is also interesting to note how the tides have turned. In recent years, Dallas was the elite team set to make the playoffs and perform well there while Houston seemed destined to be on the outside looking in.
Today, the teams have switched roles. Houston is in the playoff picture, albeit just barely, and Dallas is four-and-a-half games out of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Just two years after a championship season, the team has seemingly started to rebuild from the ground up.
Both teams will bring the intensity tonight. Houston needs to avoid a fifth straight loss, while Dallas wants to take a 2-0 lead in the season series. Throw in a battle for the Lone Star State, and you've got yourself a game!
Time: Wednesday, January 16th, 8:00 p.m. EST
TV: ESPN, CSN Houston, Fox Sports Southwest
Records: Houston Rockets (21-18) vs. Dallas Mavericks (16-23)
Betting Line: Houston (+4), Dallas (-4)
Injuries: Bernard James (illness, day-to-day)
Key Storyline: Can Houston Overcome Road Woes to Defeat Dallas and End Losing Streak?
The Rockets are on a four-game losing streak, and would love to end it in Dallas. However, if their first game against the Mavericks this season is any indication, they could be in for a disappointment. Throw in their 7-11 road record, and the odds are stacked against them even more.
Both teams first met at the Toyota Center on December 8, and the Mavericks were able to grind out a close 116-109 victory without star forward Dirk Nowitzki. Guard O.J. Mayo led the way with 40 points, sinking six three-pointers and grabbing eight rebounds, while center Chris Kaman chipped in 20 points of his own plus seven boards.
Not even 39 points, six rebounds and nine assists from James Harden could help the Rockets, who at this point in the season were still trying to find their collective identity. Jeremy Lin had not gotten out of his offensive slump yet, and was a borderline non-factor in scoring just seven points and registering just two assists.
But the landscape has changed now. Lin has gotten out of his funk, Harden has learned how to choose his shots a bit more conservatively and the Rockets have turned into a cohesive unit rather than just another team that likes to play the run-and-gun game.
Dallas has also slowly improved with Nowitzki back in the lineup. Their overall record since his return from knee surgery is 4-8, but their current three-game winning streak is impressive. Only one win has come against an elite team, but it was the dangerously defensive Memphis Grizzlies, on January 12.
Given how both teams have changed since their initial meeting, the stage is thus set for an excellent showdown for state pride, and the game being on national television only throws more fuel on the fire.
Key Matchup: James Harden vs. O.J. Mayo
Apart from their 19 turnovers and shooting just 34 percent from long range, what killed the Rockets against the Mavericks on December 8 was their inability to stop O.J. Mayo. He was a fine scorer and three-point shooter to begin with, but the fact that he had such a good game that night is kind of ridiculous.
Mayo has done an excellent job for Dallas since signing with them over the summer. He has averaged 18.3 points, and has shot an excellent 43 percent from long range.
Over his last five games, however, Mayo has not seemed himself. He has posted 17 points per contest over that stretch, but has shot just 33 percent from three-point territory. The interesting part is that he has taken on something of a distributor's role in averaging 5.2 assists to go with his 17 points.
It is thus all the more critical that James Harden's defense against Mayo be top-notch. Rather than just score points, it is clear that the former USC Trojan is looking to add playmaking to his resume and repertoire.
Harden is one of the best playmaking guards in the game today, averaging 5.3 assists and just under two steals to go with his 26.4 points per game, so he needs to give his opponent a lesson in just how to be a good combo guard. This means clamping down on him from start to finish, not giving him any easy plays or shots throughout the game.
On the offensive side, Harden must take full advantage of Mayo's defensive weaknesses.
Though he averages 1.3 steals per game, defense is not Mayo's strong suit by any means. Harden will be ready to drive the lane and also fake him out off the dribble, only continuing to show him what it means to play defense in the league.
Simply put, Mayo needs to defeat Harden if Dallas is to win the game. That's not an easy task, and neither is shutting down his scoring once he gets into a groove. This could be a stalemate in the making, but it also has every chance of becoming a one-sided battle.
X-Factor: Shawn Marion
Though a young team that puts out inconsistent results, the Mavericks can always rely on Shawn Marion to make a consistently tough effort regardless of the game's direction. He is no longer the explosive, high-scoring and rebounding forward he was in the prime of his career, but still has plenty of bounce in his step.
Even at age 34, Marion has managed to post 10.2 points and an impressive 8.1 rebounds per game this season. He also provides excellent defense, forcing his opponents to take bad shot after bad shot and sticking to them like super glue.
Marion needs to do that and more against fast-paced Houston.
He must continue his recent productive streak. He has averaged 12.2 points and 7.6 rebounds over his last five games. On the defensive side, he must not let Chandler Parsons sink one of his soon-to-be-legendary clutch shots and help shift the pendulum into Houston's favor.
The man really just needs to use his experience, when push comes to shove. He has plenty of playoff and championship experience, whereas the Rockets as a whole are still learning about what it takes to be great. Despite leading the league in scoring, they are last in points allowed and still prone to mistakes just like any other team, ranking last with 16.5 turnovers per game.
Marion is going to be instrumental in making sure that those turnovers happen, and Houston's chances of winning increase if his defense is not its usual pesky self.
Regarding this game, two things are certain. First, it's going to be close. Second, and you heard it here first, loyal readers, it will go into overtime.
At that point, the Rockets will take over and break their losing streak. As great as the Mavericks looked back on December 8, that game was not the norm for them. Houston is back on track, and their fast-paced, balanced attack will lead them to a hard-fought road victory.
Who will win?
James Harden will have an excellent night on both ends of the floor, leading the Rockets in scoring and helping shut down O.J. Mayo. Jeremy Lin will also perform well, dishing out a good number of assists while scoring anywhere from 10 to 17 points. Omer Asik will have a double-double, continuing to show that he can be one of the game's better centers.
Not even having Dirk Nowitzki back in the lineup will be able to bring home a victory for the Mavericks. Yes, the German seven-footer and team leader will have a good game against Houston, using his experience to get back into his scoring groove, but the Rockets' youth will be just too much.
Thus, despite a decent scoring night from Mayo and some incredible defense from Shawn Marion, this game will go to the Rockets, leaving the Dallas fans stunned.
Houston Rockets 119, Dallas Mavericks 114, in overtime
All statistics are accurate as of Tuesday, January 15, 2013