By: Jim Eichenhofer,, @Jim_Eichenhofer
January 25, 2013

For the third time in the month of January alone, the New Orleans Hornets and Houston Rockets will meet in a battle of Southwest Division rivals. Friday evening’s game in the Crescent City also marks the fourth and final time these clubs will square off in 2012-13.

Houston drew first blood on Nov. 14, holding on for a 100-96 victory on its home floor. The Rockets again prevailed in Texas on Jan. 2, by a more convincing 104-92 margin. Eric Gordon sat out that Jan. 2 game, due to it being the second contest of a back-to-back set.

In some ways, the Hornets’ second defeat to the Rockets marked a turning point in their season. After dropping to 7-25 overall on Jan. 2, the Hornets went 7-2 over their next nine games. Included among those victories was a Jan. 9 triumph over Houston in the Big Easy. New Orleans posted an 88-79 win, part of the team’s perfect 3-0 homestand during the week of Jan. 7-11.

The Hornets and Rockets have been headed in opposite directions of late. New Orleans was 8-5 overall since the return to the lineup of Gordon, the team’s leading scorer. Meanwhile, Houston’s defeat at New Orleans on Jan. 9 marked the first of seven consecutive losses for the Rockets. After beginning the season with a stellar 21-14 record, the Rockets are now 22-22.

The Hornets played one of their best defensive games of the season on Jan. 9, holding the Rockets to just 36 first-half points and only 10 in the fourth quarter. Greivis Vasquez, Jason Smith and Roger Mason were instrumental at the offensive end, pacing New Orleans with 17 points apiece.

Intriguing matchup: Shooting guard, Eric Gordon vs. James Harden
Harden has excelled individually in the three games against New Orleans this season, but Gordon only played in one of those, the Jan. 9 Hornets victory. Harden’s point totals have been 30, 31 and 25, for an average of 28.7 points. Gordon and the New Orleans defense will try to keep the crafty left-hander from penetrating into the lane, where he is adept at drawing fouls. Harden has attempted a total of 26 free throws vs. the Hornets this season.

After fielding several teams in recent years that were very competitive, but not quite good enough to make the Western Conference playoffs, the Rockets committed to a roster transformation. A franchise-changing trade acquisition just days before Opening Night, high-scoring shooting guard James Harden carried the Rockets to a fast start over the first two months of 2012-13, but Houston has cooled off considerably in January. The Rockets are now locked in a tight race for the playoffs.

What’s new
Harden is the headliner for a team that has been almost completely overhauled from 2011-12. The former Oklahoma City sixth man is leading Houston in scoring at 25.8 points per game, representing a margin of more than 10.0 over any teammate. Third-leading scorer Jeremy Lin (previously of New York) has experienced an up-and-down debut in Houston. Three of the Rockets’ other top eight point producers are new members of the roster, including swingman Carlos Delfino (Milwaukee), center Omer Asik (Chicago) and backup guard Toney Douglas (New York).

Star player
Harden is one of the quirkiest standout players in the NBA, at times receiving as much attention for his facial hair (the Twitter account @HardenBeard has over 16,000 followers) as his play. Regardless of the popularity of his bushy beard, the southpaw has left no doubt on the court this season that he deserves mention among the game’s best players, ranking fifth in scoring, behind only Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James.
On the rise
The Rockets were widely second-guessed in the offseason after they signed Asik and Lin to lucrative restricted free-agent contracts, but midway through 2012-13, the 7-foot Asik has been an invaluable addition. Considered limited offensively during his two-year tenure as a Chicago Bulls reserve, the native of Turkey is averaging double-digit points and rebounds as a first-year Rocket. Asik ranks third in the NBA in rebounding, behind only Dwight Howard and Zach Randolph.

Few teams are as reliant on three-pointers as the Rockets, who fire the second-most attempts in the league (only New York shoots threes more frequently). Despite their fondness for the long-range shot, the Rockets rank just 15th out of 30 teams in percentage. The Hornets have done a commendable job defending the shot in the previous three meetings, with the Rockets going just 24-for-80 (30.0 percent).

On the sideline
A Hall of Fame player as a scoring and rebounding force for the great Boston Celtics teams of the 1980s, Kevin McHale is now in his second season as Rockets head coach. Houston went 34-32 under McHale last season during the abbreviated 66-game schedule. McHale previously was a longtime executive in the Minnesota Timberwolves’ front office and later an NBA broadcaster for TNT and NBA TV.

Did you know?
Following Friday’s home game vs. Houston, the Hornets play eight of their next nine contests on the road. During Super Bowl week, New Orleans is scheduled to go on a five-game road trip, including trips to face Memphis, the Los Angeles Lakers, Utah, Denver and Minnesota.

Players the Rockets want shooting free throws in a close game… If the Rockets need a three-pointer, three of their best options are…
Career FT percentage (through Jan. 24)
Ranks No. 1 in NBA in total attempts from the foul line.
Shooting career-best 87.9 percent this season.
Trips to line have fallen dramatically since last season.
Career three-point percentage (through Jan. 24)
Considered a lock to make first-time All-Star appearance.
Went 4-for-5 on treys against Hornets in Nov. 14 game.
Just 4-for-15 on three-pointers vs. Hornets this season.