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Let's Get Physical

April 11, 2013 7:07 pm EDT

Rockets ready to test new look lineup against grit-and-grind Grizzlies

HOUSTON - Having placed a giant check mark next to their primary preseason goal of making the playoffs, the Rockets wasted little time adjusting their focus toward chasing the next objective in sight. Houston’s players and coaches want to finish the season strong and they’re collectively hoping the Western Conference’s six-seed will be waiting for them if they do.

With four games left in the regular season and Golden State a game ahead of the Rockets (though Houston owns the tiebreaker by virtue of beating the Warriors in three of their four meetings), Houston likely needs to go at least 3-1 to surpass their Bay Area brethren in the standings (the Warriors’ final four opponents: home for OKC Thursday, at the Lakers Friday, back home for San Antonio next Monday before finishing the season in Portland. A 1-3 Warriors finish – meaning the Rockets would only need to go 2-2 to leap them – certainly isn’t inconceivable given the gauntlet facing Golden State, but it’s definitely not something upon which the Rockets can rely either). Toward that end, the Rockets’ schedule is reasonably favorable. Games against bottom feeders Sacramento and Phoenix still remain – though Tuesday’s buzzer-beating win against the Suns should serve as warning enough that nothing can be taken for granted – and it’s still too soon to say whether Houston’s season finale on the road against the Lakers will find Los Angeles still fighting for its playoff life or taking it easy after locking up the eight-seed. What can be said with a significant level of certainty, however, is that Friday’s home date with the Memphis Grizzlies likely stands as the toughest test left on Houston’s regular season schedule and, as such, could very well prove key to whether or not the Rockets' reach their latest goal. 

As Grantland’s tremendous Zach Lowe described in great detail today, the grit-and-grind Grizzlies loom as a serious X-factor heading into the playoffs. Memphis is a throwback team of sorts, bludgeoning opponents with their brawn, suffocating them with their defense and largely eschewing the three-point shot (the Grizzlies make and take a fewer number of threes per game than does any team in the NBA). That formula, however, has been a winning one for Memphis, especially since the Grizzlies reshuffled the deck in the wake of the Rudy Gay trade.

The numbers Memphis has posted since that move speak for themselves: Since February 1 the Grizzlies have gone 23-9 while defending at a top-2 rate and scoring at a clip that would put them just outside the league’s top-10 in offensive efficiency (Memphis ranks 18th in that category for the season). Memphis, meanwhile, is still killing it on the boards (rebounding at a top-10 rate on offense and top-3 rate defensively), still forcing turnovers like crazy (the Grizzlies are top-5 in the NBA in opponent turnover rate since February 1) and mitigating the damage done when they turn the ball over themselves (since Feb. 1 the Grizzlies are No. 1 overall in opponent points off turnovers per game when adjusting for pace).

Houston got a firsthand glimpse of the Grizzlies’ improvement late last month when Memphis manhandled them en route to recording a 103-94 win. That game, however, precipitated a rather significant change – one seemingly for the better – for the Rockets as well. Since that contest, Houston has featured a lineup with Greg Smith at the power forward position and the club has gone 5-1 in the six games that have followed that switch. During that stretch, the Rockets have posted some impressive numbers themselves, scoring at a top-five rate while defending like a top-10 team. Perhaps most impressively, they are dominating the offensive glass, corralling more than 30 percent of their misses – a rate that would place them among the top-5 offensive rebounding teams in the NBA. To be sure, those numbers are the epitome of limited, dirty data given the small sample size and the fact they’ve largely come against less than stellar competition. Still, Smith’s expanded role has certainly helped Houston, and his play in the aforementioned Memphis game showed hints that it might do exactly that when he grabbed five offensive rebounds and was a team-high +7 during his 25 minutes of action. He also racked up five fouls that evening and his occasional penchant for picking up fouls in rapid succession may go further than anything in determining his effectiveness when facing elite competition in the near future.

“I think there are times he’s been really good for us,” said Houston head coach Kevin McHale following Thursday’s practice. “Depending on who we’re playing, sometimes we don’t go in enough to him but for the most part we’ve been able to rebound and have more of a presence on the inside.”

In addition to sporting a new-look lineup that Memphis has not yet seen, Houston may also have help in the form of a pair of players who have missed quite a bit of time over the last 10 days. Both Chandler Parsons (strained right calf) and Carlos Delfino (flu-like symptoms) returned to practice Thursday after each had missed the team’s last three games. While nothing definitive was said regarding either player’s status for Friday’s game, McHale sounded optimistic about Delfino’s chances to play (update: following Friday's shootaround, McHale said Delfino will definitely see playing time against the Grizzlies).

“I think (Delfino) is finally over whatever bug he had,” he said. “He was really sick for awhile. He looked better today. He was moving pretty well so I think he’ll be OK.”

Parsons, meanwhile, said he was able to run and jump without any pain and that Thursday’s workout was the best he’s felt since sustaining the injury against Sacramento last week. If he is not able to go against Memphis, however, the Rockets can at least rest a little easier knowing Francisco Garcia has been able to do such an admirable job in his stead. The 8-year veteran is averaging nearly 12 points per game over the course of the last six contests, primarily on the strength of his sizzling 45 percent shooting from beyond the arc.

“We’re doing great right now,” he said, “especially playing as a team defensively and offensively and we’re doing this together. It’s just very special … It’s beautiful basketball the way we’re playing here. We’re playing with each other, we pass the ball and it’s good to build that with my team.”

Suffice to say the Rockets will need more of the same to get past the Grizzlies Friday night. Manage that feat, however, and they will have taken a significant step toward realizing yet another goal during a remarkable season that has already seen them accomplish so much.

“I’m proud of the guys,” said McHale. “I’m happy for them. I think playoff experience is tremendous. There are very few teams that just step on the floor as a young group and win the championship. It’s steps. The first step of winning a championship is getting in the playoffs so we’re in that mode. Now what we’ve got to do is finish off the season and we have to find a way to win a series and we’ll work on whatever happens after that.”