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Preview: Rockets at Nuggets

Setting the scene for Houston's matchup with the Denver Nuggets

DENVER - Setting the scene for Houston’s matchup with the Denver Nuggets:

The Basics:

Houston Rockets (52-25) at Denver Nuggets (33-44)

Point Differential:

Denver: -2.3 (NBA rank: 20th)

Houston: +4.9 (NBA rank: 5th)

Offensive Rating (points per 100 possessions):

Denver: 103.3 (15th)

Houston: 108.6 (4th)

Defensive Rating (points allowed per 100 possessions):

Denver: 105.5 (21st)

Houston: 102.8 (12th)

Pace (number of possessions per 48 minutes):

Denver: 100.44 (3rd)

Houston: 98.76 (5th)

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):

Denver: 49.8% (15th)

Houston: 53.3% (3rd)

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

Denver: 15.7 (T-20th)

Houston: 16.4 (29th)

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

Denver: 50.7% (T-12th); offensive rebound rate: 27.3% (9th); defensive rebound rate: 74.2% (18th)

Houston: 52.2% (2nd); offensive rebound rate: 27.5% (T-6th); defensive rebound rate: 74.0% (T-19th)

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

Denver: .308 (6th)

Houston: .387 (1st)

Ah, the dreaded Denver back-to-back. These days basketball is filled with formulas that measure everything that takes place on the court, so let’s add another to the mix: Player fatigue + Mile-high altitude = Negative fun.

Mock if you must, but we hold these truths to be self-evident. Over the last five seasons, the Nuggets are 54-11 at home against opponents who had played the previous day and Denver is 7-3 in such games this year according to the Elias Sports Bureau. In other words, the Rockets are going to have their hands full tonight, especially given that the team did not arrive at its hotel in Denver until around 3:45 this morning. Toss in the fact that Houston still figures to be shorthanded and that it will be playing its third game in four nights and, well … you see where this is going. Tonight’s contest isn’t going to be the typical showdown with a 33-44 team simply playing out the string. Oh, and did we mention the Nuggets, for all that has gone wrong for them this season, still sport a respectable 20-18 record at home?

All that having been said, Denver certainly won’t be playing under anything even remotely approaching ideal circumstances, either. Ty Lawson is expected to be out once again due to a sprained left ankle, adding to the laundry list of injury woes that have hammered the Nuggets all season long. And one also wonders how Sunday night’s shocking collapse in Houston might prey upon their collective psyche both before and during this evening’s tilt.

With so many variables in play, it’s difficult to divine what will take place tonight. So let’s focus, then, upon what we do know: James Harden has been an unstoppable force (last night he became the first player in Rockets history to record back-to-back 30-point/10-assist games), Omer Asik has been a monolithic rock in the middle (more on him later) and a Houston win tonight would move their magic number to clinch homecourt in the playoffs’ opening round to one, all but assuring a rowdy, raucous and ebullient atmosphere within the walls of Toyota Center about ten days from now.

Know Thy Enemy

- Given that these two teams faced each other just a few days ago, there’s no need to make things complicated on the preview front. Anyone who watched the Rockets’ remarkable rally that night ought to be able to suss out the handful of things Houston simply must improve upon if it hopes to duplicate the same end result this evening.

Perhaps first and foremost, the Rockets have to do a significantly better job taking care of the defensive glass. Denver racked up a whopping 34 second chance points Sunday night; a number that, if repeated, would almost certainly doom Houston to defeat. Again, this is an area in which the Rockets are going to have to fight off the effects of fatigue because there’s little doubt the likes of Kenneth Faried won’t be lacking in the energy department. Both the Manimal and Timofey Mozgov rank as excellent offensive rebounders and they combined to haul in seven of Denver’s 15 offensive boards that night. Every time a Nuggets shot approaches the hoop this evening, every Houston player on the court is going to have to be mindful of making sure Denver’s dynamic glass cleaning duo is accounted for and has multiple bodies keeping them away from the basket.

- The Rockets have excelled at defending corner 3s this season, allowing opponents to connect on shots from that precious piece of real estate just 35.5 percent of the time. But Houston’s diligence disappeared during Sunday’s showdown with Denver. The Nuggets drained eight of their 11 corner 3s that night, with Evan Fournier leading the way by knocking down 4-of-5 from that location. The Rockets can’t allow a repeat, and have to be especially conscientious when the aforementioned Fournier, Randy Foye and Aaron Brooks are spotting up – each is lethal when they have time to set their feet and freely fire away from distance.

- And speaking of Brooks, Houston’s perimeter defenders are going to need to do a much better job keeping him out of the middle of the floor where he was consistently able to break down the defense and wreak havoc. For 44 minutes Sunday night, Brooks did his best Chris Paul impression, riddling his former team with a wide array of deft passes and shot-making skill. When Houston amped up the pressure, however, the turnovers started to flow and his effectiveness dropped considerably. Applying pressure, of course, requires energy. The more the Rockets can muster, the better off they’ll be (the preceding message was brought to you by Captain Obvious and the ‘No Duh’ All-Stars).

By the way, Brooks has been a pick-and-roll fiend since joining the Nuggets. Denver is averaging 1.018 points per possession when AB plays pick-and-roll according to Synergy Sports, a number that places him in the league’s 88th percentile in that category and one that is roughly the equivalent of what Steph Curry has been producing for Golden State all season long.

In the spotlight

There won’t be any official word on the playing status of either Dwight Howard or Patrick Beverley until much closer to game time. If Howard does not play, however, that will simply give Omer Asik yet another opportunity to reprise the role he performed to such aplomb a season ago.

Asik has been nothing short of indispensible in Howard’s absence, recording a team-leading plus/minus of +70 during his nine starts that have taken place over the course of Houston’s last 11 games. What’s more, just take a gander at what has happened to the Rockets’ defense whenever Asik grabs a breather on the bench. During the club’s last six games, Houston’s defense has given up an eye-popping total of 114.9 points per 100 possessions when Asik has not been on the floor – a rating that would be dead last in the league by a mile and one that is 8.1 points per 100 possessions worse than the Rockets have recorded when the Turkish national has played during that six-game stretch. Yes, he’s kind of a big deal.

Injury Update

Greg Smith (arthroscopic right knee procedure) is out. Pat Beverley (right knee sprain) and Dwight Howard (left ankle strain) are day-to-day.

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