For most of the season Houston resided in either the third or fourth seed in the Western Conference. By virtue of winning in Washington coupled with Memphis losing to San Antonio they swapped positions.
Now the Rockets sit atop the Southwest Division and are second in the Western Conference. What makes the second seed so appealing is the reigning Champion Spurs currently sit sixth and are finally at full strength. Avoiding the Spurs in the first round is the goal of almost every Western team.
If the Toronto Raptors belong to the easiest division in the East there is no question the Rockets belong to the powerhouse division of the West. Half of the West’s playoff seeds come from the Southwest Division: Houston, Memphis, San Antonio and Dallas rank second, third, sixth and seventh respectively. The only question that remains is whether Anthony Davis and his New Orleans Pelicans can manage to tie the Thunder to get the eighth seed and make it an unprecedented sweep by a division.
Arguably Oklahoma City has endured the worst of the injury bug this season, but the Rockets rank very close in terms of not having key players available. It’s also where the Rockets literally have an ace up their sleeve as many underestimate their versatility and often under rate how strong this team is.
Their proposed starting line-up: Patrick Beverley (17), James Harden, Trevor Ariza, Terrence Jones (48) and Dwight Howard (38) have played together twice this season and those were the first 2 games of the season. It speaks to how adverse conscious this team is and although they have MVP candidate James Harden carrying the majority of the burden the fact they’ve remained in the upper echelon of defense this season is a testament to the grit of this squad.
With Dwight Howard back there are immediate dividends paying out for the Rockets specifically on the defensive end and in the paint. Toronto gets the fortunate bounce of the ball since Howard hasn’t been cleared to play back-to-back games yet. Since he played Sunday in Washington he won’t play tonight. Factor in Terrence Jones is still out and Donatas Motiejunas is also out with back issues and it provides the Raptors with an undermanned Rockets’ front court. However, it’s best not to underestimate these Rockets as they took down Indiana with virtually the same line-up they’ll have tonight and posted 110 points against them on the road.
- Have the second best Western Team record against the East 22-6 (Golden State: 25-5)
- Third best road record in the NBA at 23-13 (GSW: 26-11 & Atlanta 24-13)
- The Raptors are one of only 4 Eastern squads with a winning road record (Hawks, Cavs, Bulls) and are tied with the Bulls for a +12 winning home record in (Hawks, Cavs, Wiz ahead)
- While some people worry about the Raptors late game situations, they share something in common with the Rockets in that they both rank in the top 5 in winning 1 point, 1 minute remaining games as per Ethan Strauss:
NBA Standings in 1 point, 1 minute left games. Good for the Grizz and Rockets. Bad for the Spurs and Thunder pic.twitter.com/eKRR7gNhxk
— Ethan Strauss (@SherwoodStrauss) March 18, 2015
An intriguing match-up given the similarities: Vasquez and Terry are both suspect on defense and both capable 3-point shooters. Harden represents a complete offensive player who is equally adept at driving the paint as he is shooting from the field or behind the arc. Both shooting guards get to the line with Harden topping the Association in attempts/makes while DeRozan is sixth in attempts (7.1) and fifth in makes (5.9).
In the past 14 games DeRozan has failed to score 20 points just twice although when he becomes more of a distributor it bodes well for the team. It’s likely he’ll be joined by Ross and James Johnson getting minutes guarding Harden. Note to DeRozan: watch Harden in the post as he tempts the opposition by extending his arms and then powers up to score, there is no one better (he must have the strongest forearms in the NBA).
Harden’s stats read like exactly what he is – the leading MVP candidate:
- Free throw attempts: 727 & makes: 630 (1st)
- Free throw attempts: 10.1 & makes: 8.8 per game (1st)
- Offensive win shares 10.8 (2nd)
- 3-point field goals (4th)
- Points per game (27.2)
- Box plus/minus: +8.3 (3rd)
- Assists per game (9th)
- Defensive win shares +3.9 (8th)
- Total steals(4th), steals per game 1.9 (6th)
- Win shares: 14.6 (1st)
- Value over replacement player +6.9 (2nd)
Edge: Rockets – there is a reason these Rockets sit 2nd out West and have done it without core players and it’s the man with the beard. The key to winning isn’t even as simple as stopping him from scoring, it’s stopping his play making as well.
Over the past 7 games Ross has averaged 11.3 points per game and is shooting over 53% from three. We’re seeing him make more drives to the basket as it appears Casey is finally running specific plays for him (and they look exactly like the ones the team usually runs for DeRozan). In Trevor Ariza, Ross gets an example of who he should aspire to become as an NBA player. It’s no coincidence Houston have improved dramatically on the defensive side of the ball since inking Ariza as a free agent. The Rockets are the best perimeter defenders in the league with Ariza leading the charge.
Amir Johnson has raised his level of play with Lowry out, in his last 4-games he’s averaging 9.25 points and 7.75 rebounds. Of note: it appears there is an emphasis on getting Valanciunas consistent touches- in 3 or his past 4 games he’s had double digit attempts (9 in the other).
And the Raptors front court is successful when they get their touches:
Josh Smith has found a home in Houston and whether it’s because he’s playing his natural power forward position or because his teammates trust him there’s no denying the significant improvement in his production. As a Rocket he’s shooting 49.6% from the field and 34.6% from three (as a Piston: FG: 40.7% & 24.3% from 3). The trust factor is big as Smith is actually taking 2 more three point attempts per game.
His assists are trending upward without Beverley in the line-up as are his 3-point attempts. In his last 4-games he has averaged: 14.25 points, 4.5 assists, 7 rebounds, taken 4.75 three’s and connected on 2.5 or 53%. In essence he’s playing the role Hedo Turkoglu did in Orlando only he’s more skilled at the intangibles.
Edge: Raptors – Despite the improved play of Smith if the Raptors play solid focused defense and win the rebounding battle they’ll take this contest. Hopefully Casey won’t concede to going small playing into McHale’s hand and instead uses his multiple options up front and their obvious size advantage.
With Houston dealing with an injury riddled team coach Kevin McHale may only play eight players tonight unless he decides to remove the leashes from K.J. McDaniels or big man Clint Capella. Unfortunately for the Raptors, Prigioni seemingly found his rhythm vs. the Wizards yesterday. Still, the front court is where the Raptors have a huge advantage if (REPEAT IF) they play consistent focused defense. Houston will be forced to play small ball all night given they just don’t have the reserves up front to switch things up.
Edge: Raptors – Patterson is facing his former team, still looking to have a good showing against them as a Raptor. Tonight offers an opportunity for him to be the x factor and have a stand out performance. Brewer will look to bring his energy to offset Lou Williams. On the season the Raptors’ reserves hold a huge edge scoring 38.9 (6th) with a plus +7.6 (6th) differential to Houston’s 29.3 (25th) and negative -4.5 differential (24).
Dwight Howard not cleared for back-to-games
Donatas Motiejunas sidelined 1 to 2 weeks (back).
Patrick Beverley torn ligament in wrist. He is waiting for the swelling to subside to allow further examination and a determination on whether he can play through it or have season ending surgery.
Terrence Jones (partially collapsed lung suffered March 19th). Should rejoin practice this week.
Kostas Papanikolaou (ankle) McHale updated he remains 7-10-days away from a return.
Kyle Lowry remains out and didn’t practice Sunday so unlikely to play tonight
- Houston represents the final team above .500 the Raptors will play.
- With nine games remaining for Toronto they need to win 5 to match last season’s total and 7 to garner the 50-win season that has eluded them since the franchises’ inception.
- Rebounding is the key: Houston suffered back-to-back losses to Portland and Utah and the common theme was they were out-rebounded by 20 in both games
- With a depleted bench and playing on a back-to-back the Raptors need to be aggressive and take it to the Rockets early
- Despite Harden leading the league in free throw categories the Rockets suck at the line
- Turnovers: while Houston has been stellar defensively the one area of their game still making pundits scratch their heads is how much they turn over the ball. They rank 29th with 16.8 turnovers per game whereas Toronto are 3rd with 12.8 per game.
- If you think this might be a cake walk without Howard, Motiejunas or Jones available take a look at the shot chart from yesterday (Rockets in Red) and note Howard only took 6 shots:
— Michael Lee (@MrMichaelLee) March 29, 2015
The odds makers have Toronto favored by a 1.5 points. Houston will be without 3 members of their starting 5 and 1 key reserve plus they played yesterday.
Conversely, the Raptors haven’t played since Friday and should only be short Lowry. Toronto haven’t shown an ability to beat upper teams since the 4-games around the break (Clippers, Spurs, Wizards, Hawks) and they’ve been inconsistent (at best) on defense. So, tonight is really about making a statement to themselves that they can raise their game to play elite teams.
Houston certainly won’t be shedding any tears over their undermanned roster. They’ve played hurt all season and are as inspired to capture the two seed as the lower level teams competing just to get into the playoffs. Unlike Toronto, the Rockets still have several difficult games remaining specifically 3 in their own division versus Dallas and the Spurs (x2) as well as Oklahoma City and New Orleans. They’ll view this game as an opportunity to steal a game and pad their lead over Memphis.
If we go on what we’ve seen the past week it appears coach Casey is finally acquiesced to utilizing James Johnson and giving Valanciunas additional fourth quarter playing time. A win tonight could help boost their confidence as their next 8 will be mostly facing Eastern teams who are in – win or go home mode.