Gameday: Rockets @ Raptors, April 2

No Dwight, maybe no Lowry, a pair of teams trying to hang on to home court.

The 42-32 Toronto Raptors host the 49-24 Houston Rockets at the Air Canada Centre on Wednesday night, a game you can catch at 7 p.m. on Sportsnet One. It’s a big one for the Raptors, as they’re presently tied with Chicago for the third seed in the East and only a game-and-a-half up on Brooklyn for the Atlantic Division crown and home-court advantage in the first round. It matters about the same to Houston, as Portland has moved within a game-and-a-half of them for home-court in the West, too.

But it won’t be easy for either side. The Rockets are on the second game of a back-to-back and are missing a key piece, while the Raptors may be missing a key piece. Let’s start there.

Injury Updates
Toronto: Kyle Lowry’s status won’t be known until pre-game media availability, which is around 5:30, give or take. Context clues point to him not being available, but the lack of an update following Tuesday’s re-evaluation may mean it really is up in the air. As much as it would hurt their chances, I’m hoping they play it safe and sit Lowry down, and then, at most, play him in a single game of the Friday-Saturday back-to-back. Longview, people.

Houston: Dwight Howard is out, Patrick Beverley is out, Greg Smith is out and Terrence Jones sat out on Tuesday with the flu. So the Rockets are without their two best defensive players, and in 827 minutes without either on the floor this season, the Rockets have surrender 119 points per 100 possessions, well above their 107 mark overall (that’s per, though has their marks much lower, though still worse without Beverley and Howard).

E-mail Exchange
To help us set the stage, I enlisted the help of Michael Pina of many, many places, including Red 94, the True Hoop Houston Rockets blog.

Obviously, any defensive game plan has to begin with James Harden, one of the top five scorers in the NBA. His Euro-Step is unstoppable, and he isn’t bad anywhere, ranking in the top-100 in just about every play category, per Synergy. He does appear less effective in straight isolations than on the move, which makes sense, but my question is this: what type of defenders have tended to do a good job limiting Harden? He’s shot under 40 percent on 16 occasions, so it’s possible (though he only scored less than 15 points in seven of those games, since he’s so prolific at getting to the line).

Defending James Harden is probably one of the three or four most difficult defensive tasks in the league right now. His step-back jumper is one of the scariest things you’ll ever see. Off nights generally feel more like his own undoing than a defensive strategy. Harden’s shot selection can be insane, especially from behind the three-point line. But in the half-court, teams should always try forcing him right, making him a distributor sooner than later out of the pick-and-roll—going above the screen every single time—and letting someone else (hopefully Omer Asik) beat you.

More handsome: Chandler Parsons or J.J. Redick?

Parsons, only because his hair game is more versatile.

Why do the Rockets hate threes? A year after setting the NBA record for attempts and in the same year their D-League affiliate has attempted 417 triples a game, the Rockets are all the way down to…the 10th-highest 3FGA/game mark of all-time. I think many thought Dwight Howard would open up even more threes – is this a case of Dwight needing his interior touches, regression from the most extreme season ever, or a bit of both?

Houston still loves three-pointers. They jack up a ton in transition and have yet to meet an open look they didn’t love. But personnel changes from last year have made the shot more of a useful weapon than necessary means for survival. Dwight Howard sucks up plenty of possessions in the post (a good thing) and draws enough attention to open up easier opportunities at the rim for guys like Terrence Jones. The three-point line was a novelty act last year, and the Rockets are far more dangerous with a somewhat balanced attack.

Daryl Morey and Mark Cuban in a No-Disqualifications match at Wrestlemania, who you got?

Morey. Size matters.

The Rockets defense has been pretty solid. Perhaps that’s not a surprise with Howard and Patrick Beverley in the starting lineup, but how concerned are you with the team’s defense while Beverley sits? In particular, Kyle Lowry should eat Jeremy Lin’s lunch, and it’s not as if James Harden can really help. (Note: Q&A took place before Lowry’s injury and Howard’s status confirmation.)

Beverley is fantastic at the point of attack and recovering to block a point guard’s shot. But he also fouls a TON on the perimeter, which isn’t so great when the other team gets in the bonus super early. (Strange enough, Houston allows 101.5 points per 100 possessions with Beverley on the floor. Guess how many they allow with Lin out there? 101.5.)

Houston’s defense is anchored by Howard and Asik. Both can do just about everything a big man needs to do as help defenders and immovable objects in the post. As long as one of them is on the floor, the Rockets will operate at a top-10 level. Chandler Parsons is quietly improving on the perimeter, though he’s still covered with warts on that end, and Harden meanders between working too hard and not working at all.

Beverley’s absence will hurt against Toronto, but doesn’t Kyle Lowry eat everybody’s lunch anway?

The Breakdown
Vegas says: Raptors -1 with 58 percent of action going to the favorite and 62 percent hitting the over of 203.
Hollinger says: Pick ’em
Houston’s Slim Thug says: They say I can’t get in cause I’m dressed like a thug

Blake says: It’s really hard to call anything in this one. With a full squad against a Rockets team without Howard and Beverley and maybe even Jones, at home, with Houston on a back-to-back, this should be a win. The Rockets are good and the West fantastic, but the Raptors are on par when you take the injured players away, and they have the situational advantage.

Having said that, it’s Kyle Lowry with his status to be determined, the team’s most important player, and if it were me in charge the team would be taking every precaution with him. Too much is up in the air, so definitely stay away from the line – I’ll take the Raptors if Lowry gives it a go, otherwise I’d give Houston the egde. Lowry is worth a couple of points, and with the line this close he’s the deciding factor. Really bold, I know.

UPDATE (6:00 PM)

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