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Monday February 6, 2012 4:31 PM

Cram Session


Rockets ready themselves for Nuggets' (mile)high-octane attack

Jason Friedman
Rockets.com

DENVER, CO - Every NBA game presents a test of sorts; timed exams filled with unique riddles that must be unraveled using lightning-quick problem solving skills and techniques.

To that end, there is little mystery regarding the subject matter the Rockets will be asked to tackle tonight in Denver. The Nuggets want to make their opponents run all night in the mile-high altitude while aggressively and relentlessly attacking the basket at every opportunity.

The numbers don’t lie: Denver ranks No. 1 in the NBA in pace, free throw attempts and points in the paint scored per game, and stands just a shade behind Miami for the title of most efficient offense in the league. They are a handful for even the best of defenses, using their enviable depth to attack opponents in waves.

Fortunately for Houston, however, Denver’s depth doesn’t figure to be as much of a factor tonight. According to the Denver Post, the Nuggets will be without starters Nene (heel), Arron Afflalo (ankle, toe) and Timofey Mozgov (ankle), as well as reserve Corey Brewer, whose father passed away today. So, yes, there is real opportunity here for a Rockets team still struggling to find a winning formula on the road (Houston’s record away from home is 3-8). But the Rockets have hardly been granted a full-on reprieve; with players like Ty Lawson, Danilo Gallinari, Andre Miller and Al Harrington, the Nuggets still possess plenty of explosiveness to spare.

Acing this pop quiz, then, will require the sort of defensive effort the Rockets put forth during the second half of Saturday night’s game against Minnesota. During that stretch, Houston locked in and defended with purpose and a plan and, as a result, forced a bevy of turnovers that allowed them to get back in the game. And Denver can certainly be prone to carelessness with the ball at times, which is why the Nuggets rank in the bottom-third of the league in terms of turnover rate.

What the Rockets can’t do is allow an endless stream of penetration from Denver’s perimeter players because the Nuggets can really make teams pay – as witnessed firsthand by the Sacramento Kings on January 25th when they allowed an astounding 92 paint points to the Nuggets that night. And to be sure, this is an area of concern for a Houston club that comes into tonight’s game ranked 28th overall in paint points allowed per contest.

Then, of course, there is the matter of mitigating the damage done by Denver’s transition attack. Doing so obviously begins with all five players hustling back to help and get in proper position on the defensive end; something that should lead to one of the more interesting balancing acts to watch throughout the game: The Rockets are one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the league, entering tonight’s game No. 4 in the NBA in offensive rebound rate; but with Denver being a threat to run after every single miss, Rockets Head Coach Kevin McHale says his team will perhaps have to pick its spots more carefully when it comes to how it attacks the offensive glass.

“We still have to get to the glass but we’ve got to get there a little smarter,” he said following this morning’s shootaround. “We have to send people to the glass but we can’t send that extra guy; like if Kyle drives, the corner men have got to get out. A lot of times if Kyle shoots a jump shot, we don’t mind our corner guy coming in but we’ve got to have two guys back at all times and everybody’s got to be on their horse running back because here they can run you out of this place quick.”

At the end of the day, however, the Rockets’ best defense tonight against Denver may very well prove to be its own offensive prowess. Houston is terrific in transition, too, and the Nuggets will no doubt miss the interior size of Mozgov and Nene, not to mention its best wing defender (Afflalo). To that end, the Rockets will no doubt lean heavily, as always, on their potent backcourt pairing of Kevin Martin and Kyle Lowry, with Martin's anticipated matchup against rookie Julyan Stone appearing especially inviting. The rejuvenated Lowry, meanwhile, seems to be back in All-Star caliber form after fatigue got the better of him for a stretch of several games. Lowry was dynamite during the second half against the Timberwolves and Houston will need more of the same against Denver’s own prolific pair of point guards. Then again, Lowry has long since grown accustomed to the nightly challenge he faces at his position, especially after a two-week stretch that has seen him face talents such as Ricky Rubio and Tony Parker twice, while also going head-to-head against the likes of Steve Nash, John Wall and Brandon Jennings during that period as well.

“I relish it,” he says of facing steady stream of elite talent at his position. “I’ve worked hard to get here and these guys have worked hard to get to this point, too – I love playing against them. Ty is having an amazing year this year; he’s one of the better Western Conference point guards in terms of point and overall production. Every night I’m facing good point guards and tonight I’m facing two.

“There’s so much talent and I do think the rules have helped out the smaller guards, including myself. But you still have to have the talent to take advantage of them and we all work hard, we’re all really good.”

True enough. But in order to ace tonight's exam, both he and his teammates with have to be even better.

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