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Preview: Rockets vs. Suns

Setting the scene for the Rockets' matchup with the Phoenix Suns

HOUSTON - Analysis and observations from before, during and after Houston’s matchup with the Phoenix Suns:


The Basics:

Phoenix Suns (29-19) at Houston Rockets (32-17)

Point Differential:

Phoenix: +3.4 (NBA rank: 10th)

Houston: +3.6 (NBA rank: 9th)

Offensive Rating (points per 100 possessions):

Phoenix: 106.4 (8th)

Houston: 107.4 (6th)

Defensive Rating (points allowed per 100 possessions):

Phoenix: 102.5 (12th)

Houston: 102.2 (T-10th)

Pace (number of possessions per 48 minutes):

Phoenix: 98.14 (6th)

Houston: 97.94 (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):

Phoenix: 51.2% (8th)

Houston: 52.8% (3rd)

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

Phoenix: 15.3 (14th)

Houston: 16.5 (T-28th)

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

Phoenix: 49.7% (18th); offensive rebound rate: 26.6% (13th); defensive rebound rate: 72.5% (26th)

Houston: 51.7% (6th); offensive rebound rate: 27.3% (T-10th); defensive rebound rate: 73.2% (T-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):

Phoenix: .285 (14th)

Houston: .397 (1st)

Alright, Phoenix, you had our curiosity – but now you have our attention. When last we saw the Suns, they were a nice early season story as they had exceeded expectations by hovering around the .500 mark despite league-wide predictions of doom and gloom. Fast forward two months and Phoenix is no longer thought of as some sort of novelty act. The Suns remain firmly entrenched in the Western Conference playoff race, doing so despite the extended absence of offseason acquisition Eric Bledsoe. The reasons are simple enough to divine: Goran Dragic is playing like an All-Star; Jeff Hornacek has solidified his status as a Coach of the Year candidate; and the club’s role players have stepped up across the board. As a result, Phoenix now finds itself smack dab in the middle of a flurry of trade rumors centered around the very real notion that the Suns might be looking to load up for a playoff run rather than simply standing pat while waiting on what looks to be an increasingly bright future.

This is a team to be taken very seriously – a fact the Rockets recognize all too well after dropping their December meeting to the Suns. Of course, that night found Houston without both Chandler Parsons and Jeremy Lin while Phoenix was still enjoying the services of a healthy Bledsoe. With the scales of good health now decidedly tipped in their favor, the Rockets have every reason to believe they ought to exact a measure of revenge this evening.

Just don’t expect it to be easy. Having already burned Houston once this season, the Suns are perfectly capable of doing so again. But if they do, it won’t be because they snuck up on anyone or caught the Rockets off guard. Phoenix will have Houston’s full attention tonight, of that there is no doubt. The Rockets have watched the Suns’ rise from afar and seen firsthand the kind of strong statements Phoenix is capable of sending. Now, however, it’s Houston’s turn to send one of its own.

Know Thy Enemy

- Dimming the Suns’ offense is a complicated exercise that begins with finding a way to slow their exceptionally potent screen-and-roll game. According to Synergy Sports, Phoenix boasts the NBA’s most efficient pick-and-roll attack, averaging .989 points per possession in such situations.

Not surprisingly, much of the Suns’ screen-and-roll success is derived from the brilliance of Dragic – the player Patrick Beverley deems “the head of the snake.” Dragic ranks in the league’s 95th percentile in pick-and-roll plays, per Synergy, with Phoenix averaging 1.082 points per possession when he’s operating as the playmaker for either himself or his teammates while navigating those screens.

And Dragic and the Suns are never more deadly than they are when he’s paired with pick-and-pop big man extraordinaire Channing Frye. During the 1052 minutes those two have shared the floor together, Phoenix has posted an offensive rating of 112.5 – a mark that would lead the league by a significant margin – and a top-10 caliber defensive mark of 101.9. The reason for their success is simple enough: with Dragic’s ability to wreak havoc in the paint and Frye’s pinpoint perimeter marksmanship – the 30-year-old forward has knocked down a remarkable 42.4 percent of his above-the-break 3s this season – defenses are forced into a pick-your-poison scenario for which there is no ready-made answer.

- Tonight’s contest promises to feature no shortage of pace as both teams love nothing more than to supplement their offensive diet with a smorgasbord of scoring derived from transition and early offense opportunities. The Suns are No. 1 in the league in pace-adjusted fast break points per game (18.9 points per 100 possessions) and rank in the league’s top-10 in pace-adjusted points per game off of turnovers. Those two areas loomed large in Phoenix’s 97-88 win over Houston back on December 4, as the Suns racked up 25 points off of 23 Rockets turnovers while outscoring Houston 26-14 in fast break points.

- Fans can also figure to see plenty of 3-pointers this evening as these two clubs attempt more 3s per game than anyone else in the NBA. As always, keep an eye on those corners: the Suns are second in the league in corner 3s attempted per game and they hit nearly 39 percent of their shots from that location (P.J. Tucker has proven especially dangerous from that precious real estate, having hit 42 percent of his corner 3s). The Rockets, meanwhile, have thus far limited opponents to a pedestrian 33 percent hit rate from the corners – the third best mark in the league in that category.

- Two areas the Rockets should dominate tonight but didn’t the last time they faced off with Phoenix: paint points and free throw attempts. Houston is second in the NBA in pace-adjusted paint points per game while the Suns sit in the league’s bottom-5 in pace-adjusted paint points allowed. Yet Phoenix won the paint point battle 42-40 two months ago.

And despite the fact the Suns send opponents to the charity stripe a ton – only six teams send the opposition to the line more frequently than does Phoenix – and the Rockets rank No. 1 in free throw rate, both teams attempted 19 free throws during their last meeting.

If Houston takes care of business in those two areas tonight, it will have almost certainly taken a very significant step toward securing a happy end result.

- One aspect of last December’s contest that the Rockets will attempt to duplicate is the dominant work it put in on the offensive glass. Houston piled up a whopping 21 offensive rebounds (8 alone courtesy of Dwight Howard) that night which translated into a massive 21-4 edge in second chance points. This area figures to be a major point of emphasis for both teams as each club ranks in the league’s bottom-5 in terms of pace-adjusted second chance points allowed.

In the spotlight

P.J. Tucker has turned himself into a fine player. He’s put in a ton of work to become one of those invaluable ‘3-and-D’ guys that are, quite rightfully, all the rage these days. But what he’s done during his last two game against Houston is just flat out ridiculous. In those two contests, Tucker has averaged nearly 20 points per game while playing a huge roll in limiting James Harden to 15 points per game on less than 23 percent shooting from the field (including an 0-for-17 mark from 3!). As a result, Tucker compiled a rather eye-catching plus/minus of +38 during those two affairs – both of which were Phoenix wins, by the way.

Take nothing away from Tucker, but these things have a way of balancing themselves out, especially when All-Stars like Harden are involved. The Rockets don’t require a monster night from Harden to emerge victorious this evening. But odds are he’ll produce much more than he has against Phoenix in the recent past, and it should prove fascinating to see how he approaches his matchup with Tucker in particular.

Injury Update

Greg Smith (knee), Omer Asik (thigh/knee) and Isaiah Canaan (hamstring) are out.

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