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Preview: Rockets at Bobcats

Setting the scene for Houston's matchup with the Charlotte Bobcats

HOUSTON - Setting the scene for Houston’s matchup with the Charlotte Bobcats:

The Basics:

Houston Rockets (47-22) at Charlotte Bobcats (34-36)

Point Differential:

Charlotte: -1.0 (NBA rank: 18th)

Houston: +5.0 (NBA rank: T-5th)

Offensive Rating (points per 100 possessions):

Charlotte: 100.6 (23rd)

Houston: 108.5 (T-4th)

Defensive Rating (points allowed per 100 possessions):

Charlotte: 101.6 (T-6th)

Houston: 102.5 (10th)

Pace (number of possessions per 48 minutes):

Charlotte: 95.07 (21st)

Houston: 98.25 (8th)

Four Factors:

Shooting – Effective field goal percentage (eFG% is a field goal percentage that’s adjusted for made 3-pointers being 1.5 times more valuable than a 2-point shot):

Charlotte: 48.0% (25th)

Houston: 53.5% (3rd)

Turnovers – Turnover ratio (the number of turnovers a team averages per 100 possessions):

Charlotte: 13.1 (1st)

Houston: 16.6 (29th)

Rebounding – Rebound percentage (the percentage of total rebounds obtained)

Charlotte: 49.1% (T-21st); offensive rebound rate: 21.4% (27th); defensive rebound rate: 77.4% (1st)

Houston: 52.0% (3rd); offensive rebound rate: 27.5% (T-7th); defensive rebound rate: 73.5% (T-21st)

Free Throws – Free throw rate (the rate at which a team goes to the line relative to the number of field goals it attempts):

Charlotte: .297 (T-10th)

Houston: .389 (1st)

The Rockets have cleaned up against Eastern Conference competition this year (Houston is 21-5 against their brethren to the east this season) and are riding a 17-game winning streak against foes who enter the contest with a below .500 record. Recent history would suggest tonight’s contest against Charlotte presents a prime opportunity to build upon both of those marks. Houston has won its last six games against the Bobcats by an average of 13.5 points per contest, and Charlotte’s reputation as an NBA cellar dweller has been well documented over the years.

But don’t be fooled or lulled into that line of thinking. There’s very real upset potential lurking here as the Steve Clifford coached ‘Cats are almost certainly playoff bound, having rediscovered their bite thanks to the low-post presence supplied by a resurgent big man and a scrappy defense that has made life miserable for many an opponent. With Al Jefferson beasting his way toward averages of more than 25 points and 10 rebounds per game in March, Charlotte has won seven of its last 10 contests – a stretch bookmarked by a 22-point drubbing of Indiana and a 30-point demolition of Portland.

Of course, Houston hasn’t been too shabby either of late. Only the Clippers and Spurs have won more games than the Rockets have in 2014, and James Harden’s two-month tear has been so ridiculously superb and efficient that he’s thrust himself into top-5 MVP candidate consideration (Houston’s All-Star two-guard, by the way, just became the first player in NBA history to score at least 35 points and dish out at least 10 assists in a game while playing 30 minutes or fewer during his 37-point, 11-assist masterpiece in Cleveland Saturday night). And for what it’s worth, Harden is 7-0 in his career against the Bobcats.

But this Charlotte team is a different kind of animal than the one Harden and company are accustomed to. There can be no looking ahead. There can be no taking them lightly. As their name might suggest, the Bobcats are right at home scratching and clawing their way to wins. And while the Rockets have played some beautiful, eye-pleasing basketball of late, they’ll need to be willing to get down and dirty tonight, too, if they’re to keep rolling and continue their quest to climb higher atop the Western Conference ladder.

Know Thy Enemy

- Back in the days when Chuck Hayes was in charge of handling a large percentage of the Rockets’ low-post defensive dirty work, he would tell anyone who asked that Al Jefferson was the single toughest assignment for him to tackle. Put simply, Big Al is an NBA throwback, a back-to-the-basket master craftsman in possession of nearly ever move imaginable. He hits 50 percent of his shots, almost never turns the ball over, and has become an increasingly proficient passer out of the double-teams that are frequently sent his way. He’s also one of just five players who are currently averaging at least 20 points and 10 rebounds per game this season.

That production has proven massive for a Charlotte team that leans heavily on the offense Jefferson creates. When the 29-year-old is on the floor, the offensively challenged Bobcats score at a level that approaches the NBA average. When he is on the bench, however, Charlotte’s attack puts points on the board at a rate that's among the league’s worst.

- The biggest problem facing Charlotte’s offense is its inability to space the floor around Jefferson with quality shooting. The Bobcats’ starters at the 1, 2 and 3 positions (Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, respectively) have combined to hit less than 43 percent of their shots from the field this season and fewer than 34 percent of their 3s.  

Charlotte’s shot selection hasn’t helped much, either: the Bobcats take among the fewest 3s and corner 3s per game of any team in the league while attempting the fourth-most midrange shots per contest; this despite owning a hit rate from that location (36.8 percent) that represents the fourth-worst such mark in the NBA.

All of which helps explain the importance of players like Josh McRoberts and the newly-acquired Gary Neal. McBob may not be the quintessential stretch-four but his 36 percent shooting from beyond the arc at least poses a threat opponents must respect (and it’s worth nothing that he went 3-of-4 from downtown against Houston earlier this season). And Rockets fans should already be well acquainted with Neal’s penchant for long-range bombing; the former Spur has hit more than 52 percent of his 3s since making his way to Charlotte via a deadline day deal with Milwaukee.

- Now as for that stingy Bobcats’ D: Charlotte ranks first in the league in pace-adjusted points off of turnovers and also in pace-adjusted fast break points allowed. Both categories, of course, are helped immensely by the fact that the Bobcats take exceptionally good care of the ball, as seen by their No. 1 ranking in turnover rate. It should come as no surprise, then, to learn that Charlotte boasts the fourth-best transition defense in the NBA, per Synergy Sports.

The Bobcats have also done well protecting the basket, owning top-5 marks both in terms of pace-adjusted paint points allowed and opponent field goal percentage from within the restricted area. Charlotte’s pick-and-roll defense has been rock solid, too, coming into tonight’s contest ranked No. 8 in that category according to Synergy.

But all the paint-packing Charlotte does comes at a cost: The Bobcats are definitely susceptible to spot-ups opportunities along the perimeter (Synergy ranks them 18th in that category) and opponents have hit 37.4 percent of their 3s against Charlotte – the fourth-highest such mark in the league. If the Rockets move the ball as they have the last three games (Houston has topped 30 assists three consecutive times for the first time since January of 1994), they will be rewarded with quality looks for their perimeter shooters to feast upon.

In the spotlight/Injury Update

These categories are one in the same today as Dwight Howard is officially being listed as a game-time decision. The good news: Houston head coach Kevin McHale was optimistic that his eight-time All-Star would be able to go tonight when asked about his potential availability following this morning’s shootaround.

It goes without saying that having both Howard and Omer Asik around would help Houston greatly in its ability to keep tabs on Al Jefferson. Charlotte’s big man tallied just 13 points on 6-of-19 shooting on opening night when the Rockets knocked off the ‘Cats by a score of 96-83 (though it should also be noted that Jefferson was still in the process of attempting to find his form after suffering an ankle injury during the preseason). Howard, meanwhile, tied his career-high with 26 rebounds on a night when he and Asik combined to grab more boards (40) than Charlotte did as a team (37).

Greg Smith, by the way, continues to be out with a knee injury.

All stats courtesy of NBA.com except where otherwise noted.