The Houston Rockets and Phoenix Suns are teams moving in opposite directions this season. The Rockets are currently seventh in the Western Conference picture and will hope to get to the sixth spot so as to avoid the San Antonio Spurs or Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round of the playoffs.
Meanwhile, as of Sunday the Suns have lost eight straight games and dropped 12 of 13. For a Suns team that desperately tried to land a star of its own in the offseason—though perhaps the Suns will be pleased the New Orleans Hornets matched their offer sheet for Eric Gordon, who has played just 36 games this year—2013 has been another major disappointment.
Still, the Suns would enjoy nothing more than to be a thorn in the side of the Rockets' playoff aspirations. Let's break down this Western Conference showdown.
When: Tuesday, April 9 at 8 p.m. ET
Where: Toyota Center, Houston, Texas
Stream: NBA League Pass
Suns Injuries (via ESPN)
Marcin Gortat, Foot, Questionable
Rockets Injuries (via ESPN)
Carlos Delfino, Illness, Day-To-Day
Chandler Parsons, Calf, Day-To-Day
What They're Saying
If the Rockets are to make the playoffs this season, a huge reason will be the team's philosophy, which embraces advanced statistics and a faster style of play. As Beckley Mason of ESPN writes, coach Kevin McHale deserves credit for facilitating that approach:
This season, McHale has given his players ample freedom, and it's working. Houston, while playing at the league's fastest pace and shooting more three-pointers than any other team, has the league's sixth-best offense. As of April 5, the Rockets are 42-33 [now 43-34], which puts them at seventh place in the brutal Western Conference and on pace to make the playoffs.
The jet-fueled offense has steadily improved throughout the season, a testament to the coaching staff's impact. If you split the season by 10-game segments, Houston's offensive efficiency failed to increase once.
Despite these accomplishments, McHale and his assistants have received little public credit for their relatively hands-off approach. It's an issue of perception. McHale's effectiveness comes almost as much from what he's not doing during games as it does from what he accomplishes in practice.
Suns Player to Watch: Goran Dragic
In a disappointing season in Phoenix, Dragic has been a bright spot, averaging 14.7 points and 7.1 assists per game. He's also coming off one of his finest games of the season, scoring 32 points against the Golden State Warriors, though the Suns once again lost.
If Marcin Gortat isn't back in time for this game—and it seems unlikely he will be—the offense will once again run entirely through Dragic. He'll need to be excellent if the Suns are to keep up with the electric Houston offense.
Rockets Player to Watch: James Harden
Harden has truly found a home in Houston. He's averaging 25.8 points, 5.9 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game this season and has grown into the superstar the Rockets have been lacking since the days of Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady.
One thing that has been so impressive about Harden is his scoring efficiency. He gets to the free-throw line 10.1 times per game and makes 8.6 attempts per contest. He's shooting 44.2 percent from the field and 37.1 percent from three.
He's a smart scorer, and the perfect player to headline the Rockets' fast-pace style. Don't expect the Suns to have an answer for him.
The Suns are slumping while the Rockets have everything in the world to play for. Houston has the motivation, the best player in this game and the advantage of a hometown crowd. Look for the Rockets to run away with an easy win, 105-90.