The Houston Rockets' game against the Orlando Magic on March 1 is more important than it may appear. Houston is three games ahead of the Los Angeles Lakers for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference, and every game counts from here on out.
The Magic are no exception, and are not to be taken lightly despite being the second-worst team in the NBA. Orlando ranks 13th in rebounding and fifth in assists, and their feisty nature has helped them keep games close.
Moreover, this team is all about defense and needs to do everything possible to slow down Houston's run-and-gun game. At the same time, Houston has to take advantage of Orlando's lack of a true star and be in full communication on offense, not to mention do everything possible to play strong defense.
This is easier said than done, as the Rockets rank 29th in points allowed, but Houston has the experience edge and more overall depth. If they can pull off a road win against a lottery team like Orlando, then their chances of maintaining pace in the tough Western Conference immediately grow.
Time: Friday, March 1, 7 p.m. EST
TV: CSN Houston, Fox Sports Florida
Records: Houston Rockets (31-28) vs. Orlando Magic (16-42)
Betting Line: Not available as of Thursday, Feb. 28, 10:46 a.m. EST
Injuries: Francisco Garcia (undisclosed, day-to-day), Glen Davis (foot, out), Hedo Turkoglu (suspended, out), Jameer Nelson (knee, day-to-day), via ESPN
Key Storyline: Houston Seeks Easy Win on Road
Though the Rockets are a near-lock to win this game, it is anything but guaranteed. The fact is that Houston has struggled on the road all season long, going 12-19 on the road compared to 19-9 at the Toyota Center.
Granted, Orlando has gone just 9-21 at home, but the fact that the Rockets have struggled so badly away from home cannot be ignored. That said, this trip to the Amway Center is going to be anything but a walk in the park.
That isn't to say that Houston is destined to lose from the get-go. They are still the better team on paper and have the upper-hand over the young and short-handed Magic.
But all it takes is one cold streak or one mistake to shift momentum in the other team's favor, and Houston's being so hot and cold all season definitely does not make them a team that can afford to take this game lightly. With the Lakers charging hard, the Rockets need to win this game, and handily.
Key Matchup: James Harden vs. Arron Afflalo
Defense is going to be the name of the game in Orlando, not something that Houston is used to by any means. Of course, this means that the Rockets' one goal on defense will be to slow down the Magic's top scorer in Arron Afflalo.
Ever since coming to Orlando in the Dwight Howard trade, Afflalo is averaging 16.7 points per game while shooting a respectable 45 percent from the field. The only number that is lower than usual is his three-point percentage, at 33 percent. This can be attributed to him playing in a slower offense, but his usual lack of production from beyond he arc has been notable.
Despite that, Afflalo has been hot as of late, averaging 17.6 points over his last five games and shooting 48 percent from the floor.
Unfortunately for the former UCLA Bruin, he'll be guarded by the ever-pesky James Harden, who has been excellent as the Rockets' starting shooting guard since being traded from the Oklahoma City Thunder before the start of the season.
On the season, Harden is fifth in the league with 26.4 points per game and is also averaging 5.7 assists and 1.9 steals per contest. He is shooting 45 percent from the field and 36 percent from downtown, and is becoming a scorer in the same mold of five-time champion Kobe Bryant.
Over Houston's last five games, of which Harden has played four, he is averaging 30 points, 5.8 assists and 2.3 steals per contest while shooting an incredible 53 percent from the field and 50 percent from long range.
It is important for Harden to have a good shooting night in Orlando, but an even greater priority should be stopping Afflalo's offense. Both men are about the same size, but Harden is the better athlete by a long shot.
If he can be an effective scorer while also taking the Magic's best offensive player out of the game, then Houston is in a prime position to pull off a big win. Otherwise, the team sets itself up for a stunning loss.
X-Factor: Chandler Parsons
This is only Parsons' second year in the NBA, but he has proven to be a great scorer and shooter in Kevin McHale's offense. The former Florida Gator has great size for small forward at 6'9", 227 pounds, and is averaging 14.7 points and 5.6 rebounds per game while shooting 47 percent from the field and 37 percent from downtown. Parsons has also become a solid team leader.
What's great about the man skill-wise is that he can make shots from practically anywhere on the floor. He's a great three-point shooter, does an excellent job of creating off the dribble and can even drive the lane when called upon.
The Rockets need him to do that and more in Orlando. Parsons has been good over his last five games, posting 17.6 points and shooting 49 percent from the field, as well as 38 percent from long range, and that streak must continue against the Magic.
Aside from defense, the key to victory for Houston is to overwhelm young Orlando with the run-and-gun game. That means that Parsons must be in top form, or else the team's approach becomes predictable in that Harden will start to take over too early.
In Houston's case, that almost definitely means a loss, so Parsons had better be in top form.
Predicted Starting Lineups:
PG: Jeremy Lin
SG: James Harden
SF: Chandler Parsons
PF: Donatas Motiejunas
C: Omer Asik
PG: E'Twaun Moore
SG: Arron Afflalo
SF: Moe Harkless
PF: Andrew Nicholson
C: Nikola Vucevic
Houston's road woes have been notable this season, but won't be an issue in this game. The Rockets' fast-paced offense will be in full swing, and the Magic won't have any idea how to stop it.
James Harden will have an excellent all-around game once again, and even Jeremy Lin may show flashes of Linsanity. Omer Asik will have a double-double, though his baskets will be on the ugly side, and the Magic's young offense will be no match for the balance that exists on the Rockets.
Orlando's downfall will begin with a horrific night from Arron Afflalo. His hot streak will come to an end thanks to defense from Harden, and both Moe Harkless and E'Twaun Moore will be tasked with keeping the game close.
Unfortunately, due to timely baskets from Chandler Parsons, the Magic will never be able to catch up as Houston pulls off a big road win and keeps pace in the West.
Houston Rockets 112, Orlando Magic 98