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Preview: Rockets at Magic

Setting the scene for Houston's matchup with the Orlando Magic

HOUSTON - Setting the scene for Houston’s matchup with the Orlando Magic:

The Basics:

Houston Rockets (41-19) at Orlando Magic (19-43)

Point Differential:

Orlando: -5.0 (NBA rank: 26th)

Houston: +4.5 (NBA rank: 7th)

Offensive Rating (points per 100 possessions):

Orlando: 99.2 (26th)

Houston: 108.1 (5th)

Defensive Rating (points allowed per 100 possessions):

Orlando: 104.3 (T-17th)

Houston: 102.4 (10th)

Pace (number of possessions per 48 minutes):

Orlando: 96.00 (18th)

Houston: 98.30 (6th)

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):

Orlando: 48.3% (T-21st)

Houston: 53.3% (3rd)

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

Orlando: 14.9 (T-10th)

Houston: 16.7 (T-28th)

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

Orlando: 48.7% (23rd); offensive rebound rate: 21.8% (26th); defensive rebound rate: 75.7% (T-7th)

Houston: 52.1% (4th); offensive rebound rate: 27.7% (T-7th); defensive rebound rate: 73.2% (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):

Orlando: .259 (T-22nd)

Houston: .391 (1st)

Look up the term ‘trap game’ in the nearest sports dictionary and there’s at least a better than average chance the definition would be accompanied by an advertisement selling tickets for tonight’s game between the Rockets and Magic. Houston, of course, is coming off one of its signature wins of the season after having knocked taken down the two-time defending champs from Miami the night before. Awaiting them when they return home from Florida is a Friday night showdown with the other Eastern Conference powerhouse, Indiana (and then games against Portland, OKC, and on and on it goes). The Rockets are riding high. They have every reason to be feeling very good about themselves right now. But they also must remember that last night’s win loses an awful lot of luster if it’s not followed up with a taking-care-of-business victory tonight.

Such is the challenge that awaits Houston this evening when they pop in for their only trip of the season to the Magic Kingdom. On paper this is an absolute mismatch. These are two teams occupying two very different plots on the organizational growth cycle. But wacky, unpredictable events happen on a near nightly basis in the NBA. Yes, it’s true that Orlando is just 4-17 against Western Conference clubs this season. But it’s just as true that two of those four wins came at the expense of the mighty Clippers and Thunder.

Since their early season slipups against some of the league’s lesser lights, the Rockets have done a much better job of dispatching such opponents over the course of the last two months. Houston’s overall record against clubs currently below .500 now stands at 20-6 and they’ve won nine in a row against those teams since dropping an 83-80 decision on the road at Atlanta on January 10. Given the sardine-style nature of the Western Conference standings, the Rockets can’t afford to regress in that area now.

Know Thy Enemy

- After missing the last five games due to an ankle injury and illness, Orlando’s Arron Afflalo returns to the lineup tonight just in time to face the Rockets. Houston did well to keep the Magic’s leading scorer under wraps when these two teams last met back in December, as James Harden had one of his better defensive games of the season, helping to limit Afflalo to just 16 points on 6-of-17 shooting.

The Rockets will obviously be hoping for similar results tonight and that challenge begins with making sure the 28-year-old two-guard’s air space is kept to a minimum. Afflalo has transformed himself into one of the game’s better spot-up shooters, as seen by the fact that he’s hitting more than 46 percent of his catch-and-shoot attempts from beyond the arc this season. And whatever you do, don’t lose track of him when he’s spotting up in the left corner; Afflalo has been knocking down shots from that location as if they were layups, connecting at a rate of better than 58 percent.

- Tobias Harris is another Orlando player to keep an eye on; he’s coming off a career-high night against Philadelphia in which he exploded for 31 points, elevating his scoring average over the course of the last five games to better than 20 points per contest. The third-year forward from the University of Tennessee isn’t much of a shooter, but his herky-jerky style helps him score in a variety of different ways and he can pose particularly problematic when operating out of the low post. And lest anyone in Houston has forgotten, Harris delivered 27 points and 10 boards against the Rockets almost exactly a year ago in a game the Magic might well have won if not for Patrick Beverley’s fourth quarter heroics that night.

- Although Nikola Vucevic (double figure scoring in his last 16 games) and Victor Oladipo (first Magic rookie to average at least 10 points, four rebounds and four assists per game since Penny Hardaway) both appear to have very bright futures in this league and possess the potential to form a rock solid inside-out partnership, they still have plenty of work to do in terms of consistently generating the kind of easy, efficient points every team needs if it hopes to make the leap to the next level. As things currently stand, Orlando ranks in the NBA’s bottom-five in both pace-adjusted paint points and points scored via the opposition’s turnovers.

- On the defensive end of the floor, meanwhile, the Magic have made a few baby steps in their journey toward becoming a club capable of consistently generating stops. Orlando ranks in the league’s top-three both in terms of pace-adjusted paint points allowed and in the number of midrange shot attempts they force the opposition to launch. In each category, only the Pacers and Bulls have been better this season, and it goes without saying that anytime your name finds itself in the same sentence as those two defensive stalwarts, you’re obviously doing something right.

Overall, however, Orlando still has a long way to go in order to get where it needs to be because this team is still a below average defensive unit. According to Synergy Sports, the Magic reside in the league’s bottom-10 on a points per possession basis in terms of their transition, spot-up, pick-and-roll and isolation defense – in other words, they’ve struggled with pretty much everything on that end of the floor outside of post-up defense. That’s not an unusual characteristic of young teams, of course, and this is a very young team.

In the spotlight

Call it a hunch, but Chandler Parsons is due for a big game. It’s been nearly two full weeks since the Florida native hit the 20-point mark, thanks in no small part to a nasty infection that’s zapped him of the usual vim and vigor with which he plays. As a result, he’s still working to get his legs back beneath him so perhaps playing the second night of a back-to-back isn’t the best prescription for what ails him. Then again, it’s just as possible that an opportunity to perform before scores of friends and family might be just what the doctor ordered.

Injury Update

Greg Smith (knee) is out.

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