It's the time of the season where every game starts to count, which makes the Houston Rockets' matchup with the Phoenix Suns all the more important tonight. The Rockets are currently the No. 7 team in the highly competitive Western Conference, but they have the hard-charging Los Angeles Lakers to worry about.
This game may not seem critical, but trust me. It is.
It is so because Phoenix is tied with the New Orleans Hornets for last place in the Western Conference. On paper, this is a game that Houston should run from start to finish.
But let's not forget that this is the first of four games these two squads will play over the remainder of the regular season. Houston has probably just seen tape of the young Suns entering this game, and there's no telling what plan interim Phoenix coach Lindsey Hunter has set in place so that his men could hope for an upset.
That said, though it may seem like a blowout waiting to happen, fans should definitely tune into what could become a close game.
Time: Saturday, March 9, 9 p.m. ET
TV: CSN Houston, Fox Sports Arizona HD
Records: Houston Rockets (34-29) vs. Phoenix Suns (21-41)
Injuries: Channing Frye (heart, out), Jermaine O'Neal (personal, out), Marcin Gortat (foot, out), via ESPN
Key Storyline: Rockets Seek to Fly High in Phoenix
This game is the first half of a home-and-home, one that the Rockets should sweep without a problem.
The team ranks second in the league in scoring, with 106.8 points per game, and also plays solid interior defense while doing a great job of passing the ball. Head coach Kevin McHale has a great team on his hands, and it's only a matter of time before they start reaching higher than a low seed in the Western Conference.
But Houston still has a lot of work to do. They currently rank second to last in points allowed, which gives the Suns something to fully take advantage of tonight. Phoenix is near the bottom of the barrel in most categories, but still ranks higher in points allowed than Houston, at 21st.
Thus, don't be so quick to count the Suns out. They are a feisty squad capable of coming together and performing well so long as the shots fall, and a case of that happening tonight could prove to sink Houston and their over-reliance on offense.
Key Matchup: Goran Dragic vs. Jeremy Lin
The Rockets employ a run-and-gun offense, in which a productive point guard is key. This means that against young Houston, Jeremy Lin needs to do his best to find some leftover Linsanity from last season.
Don't get me wrong. Lin hasn't been absolutely horrible this season, but he's definitely not the electrifying presence the Rockets hoped he would be when they signed him to a three-year deal last summer. The Harvard grad is averaging 12.8 points and 6.1 assists per game, and his defense has been solid at 1.8 steals per contest.
The only mark against Lin is that his shooting percentages have been a bit off. He's shooting just 44 percent from the field and 33 percent from long range. While not god awful, those numbers could be a bit higher in a fast-paced offense.
That said, while Lin needs to be great tonight, he must first get past the pesky defense of Goran Dragic.
Like Lin, Dragic also received a long-term contract over the summer and has not exactly lived up to the hype. Fans and team management hoped he would give the team a smooth transition out of the Steve Nash era and be a solid fit in Phoenix's fast offense, but such was not to be.
Dragic is averaging a respectable 14.1 points and seven assists per game, plus 1.6 steals, but has shot only 43.5 percent from the field and 31 percent from long range.
It's almost shocking how similar Dragic and Lin are, which should make for a great matchup tonight. Both men are about the same size and have very similar skill sets, and it's all going to be about which man utilizes theirs better.
Mark my words. That man will be on the winning team while the other just watches the defeat happen.
X-Factor: Chandler Parsons
In the event that Lin is slowed down at all, the Rockets are going to need help from a scorer who can get hot quickly and stay at that temperature from start to finish. As of late, that man has been Chandler Parsons.
The second-year forward out of Florida has continued to show great potential this season, posting 15.4 points and 5.5 rebounds per game while shooting 49 percent from the field and 39 percent from long range. Parsons can make shots from virtually anywhere on the floor and can drive the lane just as well as he can create off the dribble.
However, his x-factor status comes from his last five games.
Parsons has gone into pure scoring mode since then, and has been nothing short of phenomenal. He is averaging 24.4 points per game, and while that number may not seem big compared to other scorers in the league, consider that he has averaged that much while shooting 64 percent from the field and 63 percent from three-point range.
That said, in order to even have a shot at winning this game, Phoenix has to find a way to slow Parsons down. He has been too good for Houston over the last few games and is sure to be a prominent go-to guy in the near future.
If he can be slowed down just a little bit, the Suns have a chance.
Otherwise, the game will be Houston's for the taking.
Predicted Starting Lineups
PG: Jeremy Lin
SG: James Harden
SF: Chandler Parsons
PF: Donatas Motiejunas
C: Omer Asik
PG: Goran Dragic
SG: Jared Dudley
SF: Marcus Morris
PF: Luis Scola
C: Markieff Morris
The Suns and their fans would love to see an upset win take place against the Rockets, but it's just not going to happen. Houston is just too good and too deep, and Phoenix is essentially being held together with Scotch tape right now.
Thus, while this game might not be an absolute blowout, the Rockets will run the table from start to finish. James Harden will have a fine scoring night while also spending some time in passing mode, and Omer Asik will take full advantage of the Suns' weak presence in the paint en route to a double-double.
Chandler Parsons will also have another excellent shooting game, further establishing himself as one of the league's up-and-coming scorers. The Suns will have no answer for him, and his ability to both drive the lane and sink threes will permanently swing the pendulum in the Rockets' favor.
All that Phoenix will have to be proud of is some key three-pointers from Michael Beasley, and that won't be nearly enough to stop Houston from bringing home the win.
Houston Rockets 108, Phoenix Suns 95