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Preview: Rockets at Kings

Setting the scene for Houston's matchup with the Sacramento Kings

SACRAMENTO - Setting the scene for Houston’s matchup with the Sacramento Kings:

The Basics:

Houston Rockets (38-18) at Sacramento Kings (20-36)

Point Differential:

Sacramento: -1.9 (NBA rank: T-19th)

Houston: +4.3 (NBA rank: 7th)

Offensive Rating (points per 100 possessions):

Sacramento: 103.6 (15th)

Houston: 107.8 (5th)

Defensive Rating (points allowed per 100 possessions):

Sacramento: 105.7 (24th)

Houston: 102.2 (10th)

Pace (number of possessions per 48 minutes):

Sacramento: 96.78 (13th)

Houston: 98.26 (7th)

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):

Sacramento: 48.7% (19th)

Houston: 53.1% (3rd)

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

Sacramento: 15.5 (19th)

Houston: 16.6 (28th)

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

Sacramento: 51.1% (10th); offensive rebound rate: 27.5% (T-10th); defensive rebound rate: 75.1% (13th)

Houston: 52.0% (4th); offensive rebound rate: 27.6% (9th); defensive rebound rate: 73.5% (22nd)

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

Sacramento: .319 (3rd)

Houston: .390 (1st)

By now you’re likely already familiar with the fact that the Rockets’ record so far in 2014 (17-5) provides them with the highest win percentage in the NBA this calendar year. They have, of course, been even hotter over their last 10 games, producing a league-best net rating of +9.1 to go along with an offensive efficiency mark (110.8) and rebound rate (54.7%) that are tops in their respective categories as well.

Ah, but did you know which team sits tied for tenth in the league in net rating over that stretch, boasting a mark higher than that of Western Conference powers like the Thunder, Spurs, Suns and Blazers? It is none other than tonight’s opponent, the Sacramento Kings.

Of course, the Rockets and their fans require no reminders that Sacramento poses a threat to the good vibes Houston has been experiencing for the better part of a month now. The Kings have already knocked off Houston twice this season and even though the Rockets gained a measure of revenge the last time these two teams faced off, it’s difficult to derive too much joy from that 119-98 shellacking since Rudy Gay left in the first quarter due to injury and DeMarcus Cousins followed suit in the second quarter as well.

With both players back to full health, Houston figures to have its hands full tonight as it seeks to avoid losing a season series to Sacramento for the first time since the 2003-04 campaign. And with the similarly scorching Los Angeles Clippers lying in wait tomorrow night, a win this evening would go a long way in helping to ensure that, regardless of what happens Wednesday, the Rockets will survive its five-game west coast road swing with its mojo intact. 

Know Thy Enemy

- As it has been for years now, Sacramento’s Achilles heel remains its porous defense. There’s just not a whole heck of a lot the Kings do well on that end of the floor. Even areas that initially seem solid on the surface come with some major caveats when one delves just a little bit deeper. To wit: while Sacramento concedes fewer shots per game from the restricted area than does any team in the league, the Kings give up the second-highest field goal percentage (64.8 percent) from that precious piece of real estate. And though they rank a very respectable sixth, per Synergy, when defending pick-and-roll ball-handlers’ scoring opportunities, Sacramento’s standing in that category drops all the way to 19th when passes from those situations are added to the mix.

Then there are the defensive vulnerabilities that simply stand out like a sore thumb right from the word go. The Kings’ spot-up defense sits dead last according to Synergy (related: Sacramento is 26th in the NBA in opponent 3-point percentage) and their transition D is 28th overall. Translation: Move the ball on offense, push the pace after every defensive stop, and points will likely pile up in bunches.

That’s exactly what transpired the last time these two teams met, as Houston owned a massive edge in both fast break points (29-5) and points in the paint (66-32) though, again, the losses of Gay and Cousins undoubtedly had a great deal to do with the full extent of that massive disparity. Tellingly, in their pair of losses to the Kings, the Rockets practically played Sacramento to a draw in those two categories, and doing so again would figure to portend poorly for Houston’s chances to emerge victorious this evening. Put simply, these are advantages the Rockets must exploit.

- How much fun is it going to be to watch Dwight Howard and DeMarcus Cousins go head-to-head several times per season in the Western Conference year after year? (And yes, I’m taking this opportunity to push for the league to return the center position to the All-Star ballot. Between Howard, Cousins and reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Marc Gasol, the Western Conference has more than enough transcendent talent to duke it out for a much-deserved starting spot in the NBA’s marquee event going forward. Let’s make it happen, people.)

Cousins got the better of his counterpart over the course of the first two meetings, averaging 19 points and 13 rebounds per game as compared to Howard’s 14 points and nine boards per contest. Not coincidentally, Houston’s All-Star big man exploded for 26 points and 13 rebounds against Sacramento last month in the game Cousins got injured, putting up numbers not dissimilar to the beastly stats he’s been posting throughout February. It should be fascinating, then, to see these two face off for the final time this season, and to see how frequently Houston can feed its superstar center in positions to score; Howard averaged just eight field goal attempts per game during the Rockets’ two previous defeats at the hands of the Kings.  

- Speaking of prolific post men, check out the numbers being produced by Rudy Gay: Sacramento’s midseason acquisition has been killing it on the block since becoming a King, ranking in the 87th percentile in post-up situations according to Synergy Sports. In more than 100 such opportunities, Gay has hit 53.5 percent of his shots and is getting to the free throw line 20 percent of the time.

In the spotlight

While the battle of the bigs figures to (rightfully) attract most, if not all, of the eyeballs tonight, another All-Star has an excellent chance to ultimately steal the show. The Kings don't appear to have anyone capable of consistently slowing James Harden, who has racked up 29 points, five rebounds and more than four assists per game against Sacramento this season. And while the other member of Houston’s dynamic duo has been generating a ton of attention for his fantastic February, Harden is enjoying his finest month of the season as well, posting averages of more than 27 points, five assists and four rebounds per game.

Injury Update

Greg Smith (knee) is out.

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