Houston Rockets vs. New Orleans Hornets: Preview, Analysis and Predictions

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Houston Rockets vs. New Orleans Hornets: Preview, Analysis and Predictions
USA TODAY Sports

The Houston Rockets know what the New Orleans Hornets are going through right now.

In fact, they'd love to recapture that feeling. Their playoff hopes hinder on their ability to do so.

Not long ago, the Rockets were making serious noise in the Western Conference. Between Dec. 17 and Jan. 8, the team rattled off a spirited stretch of 10 wins in 12 games, handling bottom-feeders and conference contenders alike. Led by their potent backcourt combo of Jeremy Lin and James Harden, Houston systematically destroyed the opponent's defense to the tune of nearly 113 points per game over that period.

But it's been a rough two weeks since. Like a batter getting a second and third look at a pitcher, opposing coaches found some vulnerability in that one-time scorching offense.

Coach Kevin McHale's team has been left struggling to spark the remaining smoldering ashes. So far, the results haven't been good. Houston's offense has sputtered to a mere 94.2 points per game over its past nine games. Not coincidentally, it has all of one win to show for that stretch (a 100-94 win over the lowly Charlotte Bobcats).

As for the Hornets, it's been the complete opposite.

After suffering through an injury-riddled opening third of the season, coach Monty Williams' team appears to be just scratching the surface of its full-strength abilities.

New Orleans has won seven of its past 10 games, a mark bettered by just three teams in the deep Western Conference. Only one of those three losses has been decided by more than four points.

While the Rockets overwhelmed their opposition in the backcourt, the Hornets have found consistency in their traditional inside-and-out attack. Rookie Anthony Davis and the recently returned Eric Gordon have formed one of the league's most intriguing duos, with Ryan Anderson and Greivis Vasquez proving more than capable of handling their supportive roles.

This will be the fourth and final meeting for the Southwest Division rivals. The Rockets held home court in the team's first two meetings, while the Hornets' 88-79 home win on Jan. 9 kick-started Houston's disastrous stretch.

 

Time: Friday, Jan. 25, 8 p.m. ET

TV: NBA League Pass

Records: Houston Rockets (22-22), New Orleans Hornets (14-28)

Betting Line: Hornets -2.5 (according to Vegas Insider Consensus)

 

Injuries (via CBSSports.com)

Rockets

None reported

 

Hornets

None reported

 

Key Matchup

James Harden, SG, Rockets vs. Eric Gordon, SG, Hornets

In order for Houston to regain some conference relevance, it will need to lean on heavily on the play-making skills of Harden.

It's tried to do so throughout this rough patch, but the first-time All-Star has struggled to find the same kind of efficient production that defined his torrid start.

Part of Harden's effectiveness lies in his ability to beat defenders in a number of ways. A willing passer and competent scorer from every angle, it's his perimeter shot that's plagued him the most this month.

Defenses have closed off his driving lanes, and Harden's settled for a season-high 6.8 three-point attempts per game during January. That may not sound like a bad thing for a career 36.0 percent perimeter shooter, but it's a troubling trend given his 25.0 percent success rate from deep in 13 January games (via basketball-reference.com).

With that being said, the streaky bearded assassin is always a shot away from rediscovering his touch that afforded him nearly 28 points per game in December.

Gordon's still trying to get his legs back under him after playing in just 11 of his team's first 42 games.

And that's a scary prospect, given that he's pouring in better than 21 points per 36 minutes (via basketball-reference.com).

He opened the season in eye-opening fashion, dropping 24 points and seven assists in less than 25 minutes of action during his Dec. 29 debut. Three games later saw another 24-point outing for the Indiana University product.

Having played just 20 games since 2010-11, it will take him a while to withstand the 36 minutes he averaged over the first three years of his career. But coach Monty Williams has proven capable of maximizing the 29.3 minutes per game Gordon's seen so far, understanding the importance of his presence in crunch time.

The Hornets wouldn't have had the firepower to match blows with Harden a month ago. With Gordon on the floor, though, New Orleans has more than a puncher's chance at winning the battle of the shooting guards.

 

X-Factor

Jeremy Lin, PG, Houston Rockets

Although Harden may carry the greatest weight in turning this team around, it's hard to miss how vitally important Lin is to its success.

When the Rockets waltzed through a 10-6 month of December, they did so with the most productive play of the season from their point guard. He shot 49 percent for the month, averaging nearly 14 points per game along the way.

To put that shooting percentage into better context, consider what that figure was sandwiched by: an abysmal 37.3 success rate in November, and a paltry 39.1 percentage here in January. And those shooting struggles may be weighing on him. There's no other reason to explain his nearly 15-point drop in free-throw percentage from December (84.1) to January (69.4).

This hasn't been a favorable matchup this season for Lin, either. In the teams' three meetings, he's failed to reach double figures (7.3 points per game). His shot has abandoned him during those games, as he's connected on just 28.1 percent of his field goals (via basketball-reference.com).

But he's still capable of impacting this game, still a threat to add another Linsanity-type performance. As long as he stays aggressive, taking the action right at New Orleans' imposing frontcourt. The 3.6 combined blocks per game from Davis and Robin Lopez suggests Lin might endure some early failures. But if he can force those two into foul trouble, there's a significant drop-off to New Orleans' reserve bigs.

 

Depth Charts

Rockets

Courtesy of ESPN.com.

 

Hornets

Courtesy of ESPN.com.

 

Prediction

New Orleans Hornets 107, Houston Rockets 99

I've picked against Houston before and been burned by it, but this hardly appears to be the same team.

Their winning ways have abandoned them, and the Hornets have just as quickly picked them up.

The Rockets are also a poor team on the road, having dropped six of their past seven and 14 of their 22 away games on the year. 

The Hornets aren't exactly dominant at home (7-14), but it's tough to read too much into what this team did before Gordon returned. With him in the lineup, they're 4-2 at home, including wins over the San Antonio Spurs and these very same Rockets.

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