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Preview: Rockets vs. Heat

Setting the scene for Houston's matchup with the Miami heat

HOUSTON - Setting the scene for Houston’s matchup with the Miami Heat:

The Basics:

Miami Heat (43-14) at Houston Rockets (40-19)

Point Differential:

Miami: +6.4 (NBA rank: 4th)

Houston: +4.6 (NBA rank: 7th)

Offensive Rating (points per 100 possessions):

Miami: 110.6 (1st)

Houston: 108.0 (5th)

Defensive Rating (points allowed per 100 possessions):

Miami: 102.8 (13th)

Houston: 102.2 (9th)

Pace (number of possessions per 48 minutes):

Miami: 94.30 (23rd)

Houston: 98.37 (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):

Miami: 56.4% (1st)

Houston: 53.3% (3rd)

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

Miami: 15.7 (T-21st)

Houston: 16.7 (T-28th)

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

Miami: 47.6% (28th); offensive rebound rate: 20.1% (30th); defensive rebound rate: 72.5% (27th)

Houston: 52.0% (4th); offensive rebound rate: 27.6% (T-9th); 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):

Miami: .307 (7th)

Houston: .392 (1st)

And so it begins. The Rockets’ toughest two-week stretch of the season officially gets underway tonight as the two-time defending champs from Miami pay a visit to Toyota Center. The good news for Houston: having played last night against Charlotte, the Heat will surely be feeling at least a little fatigued. After all, they’re only human, right? (Scans last night’s box score, drops coffee cup, suddenly realizes basketball’s Keyser Soze is coming to town) 61 POINTS?!??! Are you freaking kidding me, LeBron?!? Pardon me while I abandon the premises so I can get the heck out of dodge ahead of time. Maybe the good folks of Skokie, Illinois will let me join their acclaimed barbershop quartet for a spell. Or perhaps I’ll go back to picking beans in Guatemala. This changes everything.

Well, actually, no it doesn’t. Not in the slightest. Contrary to the narrative that was making the rounds about a month ago, Miami remains the team to beat and LeBron James still reigns as the single most dynamic, destructive player on the planet today. Yes, the Heat have shown a few cracks from time to time, especially while they’ve done everything possible in an attempt to ensure that Dwyane Wade will be healthy and have plenty of juice left for a long postseason run. But here’s the thing: with Wade in the lineup Miami is 33-8, boasting a winning percentage that would be the best in the league. And the Heat sure look like a club that is rounding into form as the playoffs approach; since the calendar flipped to 2014, Miami is 19-7, having lost just once since the start of February.

If those numbers sound familiar, that’s because the Rockets are the only team in the league that owns a better record (19-6) in 2014 than do the Heat, and Houston has dropped only two games since February began. Tonight’s contest, then, represents much more than a mere test for the Rockets; it also stands as a showdown of sorts, pitting two scorching hot teams against each other, not to mention a bevy of superstar players who are currently playing their best basketball of the season.

Assuming all the usual suspects are present and accounted for, this game promises to be a blockbuster, possessing the potential for any number of unforeseen twists and turns. But, LeBron, if you’re listening, here’s a helpful hint: there’s really only one surefire way to top that 61-point masterpiece you delivered last night; convince the world, for one evening at least, that you don’t exist – it would be the greatest trick you ever pulled, the pitch-perfect encore. Tonight seems like the perfect time to try it, don’t you think?  

Know Thy Enemy

- Miami’s offense has been putting points on the board at mind-bending levels all season, but even more so since the start of February. During that time, the Heat have posted an offensive rating of 115.2 – an absolutely outrageous and historically great number.

How have they done it? For starters, no team finishes better around the rim – or anywhere in the paint, for that matter – than Miami does. The Heat have hit nearly 69 percent of their shots taken from inside the restricted area this season – a mark that no team can really come close to matching. Of course, it helps to have James on your side in that regard (and every other regard, obviously); the four-time MVP converts his restricted area attempts at an unheard of clip that’s close to 80 percent.

Continuing the tale of its exploitation of the most efficient areas of the floor, Miami also leads the league in corner 3s taken per game (8.3) and their hit rate from that precious piece of real estate (44.6 percent) is tops in the NBA as well. The Heat have a slew of shooters who are deadly from the corners, unleashing the full potency of Miami’s pick-your-poison, pace-and-space attack.

Then there is the fact that the Heat also rank No. 1 in the league in pace-adjusted points off of turnovers. No team attacks opponents’ pick-and-rolls with the aggression Miami does, and their blitzing can create turnovers in bunches, subsequently launching their Flying Death Machine into the stratosphere. Sound, sudden decision making is put at a premium when playing the Heat, so it goes without saying that Houston’s season-long bugaboo with ball security will be put beneath the microscope tonight.

But if the Rockets do take care of the ball, they’ll be able to turn the tables and apply just as much pressure to Miami’s scrambling defense. The right pass at the right time will create odd-men situations in Houston’s favor, opening up high quality scoring opportunities at the rim and along the perimeter. For instance: as good as the Heat have been at creating quality looks for themselves from the corners, they’ve allowed opponents to do nearly as much damage from that location as well. Only the Sixers have allowed the opposition to hit more corner 3s than has Miami, and Heat opponents are connecting on more than 42 percent of their corner treys so far this season. 

- While LeBron is the high performance motor that powers the Miami machine, the fuel Chris Bosh provides with his sweet shooting stroke should not be overlooked, either. The 11-year veteran is one of the best shooting bigs in the game (non-Dirk Nowitzki division), as he’s already connected on a career-high number of 3s this season, while knocking down 46 percent of his midrange jumpers as well – a hit rate that’s higher than that posted by Portland’s LaMarcus Aldridge and New York’s Carmelo Anthony.

- By now, there’s no longer any mystery regarding Miami’s Achilles’ heel: The Heat rank as one of the worst rebounding teams in the NBA, leaving them very susceptible to conceding second chance points by the bushel. Miami is tied for 26th in that category after adjusting for pace (Houston, by the way, ranks 29th though the Rockets can at least be somewhat buoyed tonight by the fact that the Heat rarely hit the offensive glass as seen by their dead last ranking in offensive rebound rate), meaning every missed shot should present a prime opportunity for Dwight Howard, Terrence Jones and Patrick Beverley to create extra possessions for the Rockets.

-The Heat are also vulnerable in transition where their players can be occasionally prone to meandering back defensively, and doubly so when defending post-ups; according to Synergy Sports, Miami ranks 18th and 28th in those categories, respectively, on a points per possession basis.

In the spotlight/Injury Update

These two categories are one and the same tonight since both Dwight Howard and Jeremy Lin are considered game-time decisions due to sore lower backs. It goes without saying that having a healthy Howard is vital toward Houston’s hopes to take full advantage of the Heat’s weaknesses along on the interior. Given that Roy Hibbert – a very fine player in his own right, but certainly not the scoring or rebounding threat that Howard is – averaged 22 points and 10 boards against Miami in the Eastern Conference Finals last season, one would fully expect Houston’s All-Star big man to have a field day when facing the Heat. But he obviously must be fit enough do so, and regardless of how massive this matchup might appear on the surface, it also only represents but a single game in early March. The Rockets have far bigger goals in mind this season and will therefore keep the big picture in mind when determining his status.

With Howard's and Lin's availability up in the air, it goes without saying that even more will be asked of and needed from the likes of James Harden and Chandler Parsons if Houston is to put an end to its seven-game losing streak against Miami. The former is certainly up to the task and proved as much last season when he detonated for 36 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists in South Beach a season ago. And Parsons has produced admirably when playing against the Heat as well; his 20.3 points per game scoring average against Miami is his highest versus any team in the league, per Elias. 

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