The Charlotte Bobcats have lost five of their last six and will seek to get back on the winning track when they visit the Houston Rockets on February 2. The game will be at the Toyota Center, where the Rockets have gone 15-8 this season.
Houston has also won three of four, and their run-and-gun game starring Jeremy Lin and James Harden appears to be headed towards another hot streak. This is a team that was put together in hopes of contending now, and Houston could definitely make a lot of noise in the postseason, despite currently ranking eighth in the Western Conference.
That said, this is a test game for the Rockets. They already defeated Charlotte once, on January 21, but that was on the road and a closer game than it needed to be. The Bobcats have no identity and are young and inexperienced—not to mention a complete mess.
Playing them at home is Houston's chance to establish its run-and-gun game early, completely overwhelming Charlotte from start to finish. This can be an absolute blowout, but only if Houston is focused and committed to perfect execution from the get-go.
Time: Saturday, February 2nd, 8 p.m. EST
TV: CSN Houston, SportSouth Charlotte
Records: Charlotte Bobcats (11-34) vs. Houston Rockets (25-23)
Betting Line: Not available as of Friday, February 1, 2:45 p.m. EST
Injuries: Byron Mullens (ankle, game-time decision), Tyrus Thomas (knee, game-time decision)
Key Storyline: Charlotte Seeks Upset Road Win in Houston
The Houston Rockets may have played inconsistently all season long, but they have always managed to perform well at home. However, even in defeating the Bobcats on the road at Time Warner Cable Arena, the win was too close for comfort on January 21.
Houston won 100-96, but shot just 39.5 percent from the field. James Harden led with 29 points, but 19 came via free throws. From the field, he shot just 5-of-20.
It was his getting to the free-throw line that helped seal the deal for an otherwise lackluster performance by Houston. The Rockets took 41 attempts from the charity stripe to the Bobcats' 24, and they won't be able to rely on that for Round 2.
Rather, Houston needs to use home-court advantage to play a balanced and disciplined game. That isn't to say they need to abandon the run-and-gun, but everyone needs to be equally focused against a team that the Rockets should blow out of the water.
This means that Harden cannot just throw up shots willy nilly. He must be in playmaker mode and get guys like Chandler Parsons and Jeremy Lin involved. Houston must establish their dominance from the get-go, otherwise they will be in danger of having to gut out another close win against a lesser team.
Moreover, no team wants the stigma of having lost to the lowly Bobcats. This is all the more reason for Houston to start the game on a positive note, focused and ready to be in control from beginning to end.
Key Matchup: Jeremy Lin vs. Kemba Walker
Like Rockets coach Kevin McHale, Mike Dunlap likes to use a fast-paced offense with the Bobcats. This type of game works best with an effective point guard, which makes the matchup of Houston's Jeremy Lin and Charlotte's Kemba Walker all the more important to the game's outcome.
In his second NBA season, Walker has shown marked improvement. Not only has he learned how to pick his shots more conservatively, but he now has a better idea of what it takes to be a reliable scoring point guard on the professional level.
Walker has averaged 17.8 points and 5.7 assists in 2012-13, and has shot 43.2 percent from the field and 34.9 percent from three-point range. The former UConn star has also been an excellent defender, posting just under two steals per contest.
He has also been excellent during the Bobcats' last five games. Through that stretch, he is averaging 21 points and 5.6 assists per game, and has made 45.6 percent of his shots from the field and 50 percent of his attempts from downtown.
Walker has continued to show improvement this season despite being on the smaller side at 6'1", 184 pounds, and he'll need to use his slashing abilities against the tough defense of Jeremy Lin.
The Harvard grad has not necessarily been Mr. Linsanity since coming to Houston, but has slowly adapted to running the point in McHale's system. He has averaged 12.2 points and 6.1 assists, and has also worked his field goal percentage up to 43.1 percent.
Lin has also been a great defender, ranking third in the league with just over two steals per game.
That said, Lin does not necessarily need to match Walker in offense for this game. Rather, he needs to do everything in his power to slow him down and keep him from having an effective scoring night.
This is easier said than done, especially since Houston ranks 27th in points allowed, but Lin needs to fight past Houston's flaws on defense and do all he can to stay locked on Walker. Charlotte's offense starts and stops at the point, and taking Walker out of the game is essential to Houston achieving what should be their goal of blowing Charlotte out.
X-Factor: Carlos Delfino
An NBA team is only as strong as its second unit, and Houston's needs to be out in full force tonight. Led by Carlos Delfino, these players can help ice the game down the stretch.
However, that's only if Delfino maintains his current hot streak.
The phenomenal shooter and pest has posted 10.8 points and one steal over 25.6 minutes per game, and has also made 40.2 percent of his threes. When he's not doing fine work from beyond the arc, his 6'6", 230-pound build allows him plenty of bulk to throw around in the paint as he drives to the basket.
Delfino has been even better over his last five games, posting 12.8 points and shooting an incredible 50 percent from three-point range.
It's important that Delfino use his excellent three-point shooting against a Bobcats defense that ranks 28th in the league, but he must also exploit the team's weaknesses to drive the lane and draw fouls as well. This may raise a red flag to some, as Delfino's history with concussions is infamous, but finding every hole in the defense is the key to Houston blowing the Bobcats out.
Delfino can help them achieve that part of their goal, but only if he approaches his attack with balance and discipline. Otherwise, he's just another dime-a-dozen shooter, and one that even the young Bobcats will be able to figure out quickly.
Their game in Charlotte was too close, and the Houston Rockets will make up for that with a key win against the Bobcats at the Toyota Center. Unlike the last time, James Harden and Jeremy Lin will have effective shooting nights, though Lin will be more focused on defense, and Houston will pull off the blowout.
Chandler Parsons will hit key jumpers and threes, and Omer Asik will have yet another double-double that features some fine work above the rim. Kevin McHale's run-and-gun game will be in full force, and Charlotte will not have any idea how to stop it.
Who will win?
Kemba Walker will be out-defended by Lin, and his poor shooting night will dig an early hole for his teammates. Bismack Biyombo will do his best to keep the Bobcats in the game defensively, but will fall short against Asik. Ben Gordon will try and shoot his team's way out of the hole, but to no avail.
Not even rookie Michael Kidd-Gilchrist will be able to pull off a surprising performance. The sad truth is that Charlotte is destined to lose this game, and they will so badly that the box score will be painful to look at.
Houston Rockets 108, Charlotte Bobcats 84