8:00 PM EST, TNT – Line: Rockets -9, Over/Under: 222
Reunions in sports typically make for excellent drama, and tonight’s matchup between the Atlanta Hawks and Houston Rockets is no different as a pair of high profile ex-teammates meet for just the second time since their highly-publicized split back in the Summer. Last season was a nightmare for Dwight Howard, who fled the dumpster fire that became of his former charges for the only team that would take him, his hometown Hawks (28-21, 5th in Eastern Conference). Throughout his four years in Houston, Howard (13.8 PTS, 63.9% FG, 12.8 REB, 1.3 AST, 1.2 BLK) rarely looked like a proper fit, which only became more abundantly clear once the franchise acquired James Harden a year after the big fellas signing, as the two All-Stars never saw eye to eye, with their feud ultimately causing the team what was supposed to be a long postseason run, and even led some staff members losing their jobs (cough, Kevin McHale, cough). In voiding the final year of his contract, Howard activated an escape plan, and Atlanta was only too happy to acquire his services, particularly after losing Al Horford in Free Agency just weeks prior. The 31-year old has acclimated himself well within Mike Budenholzer’s system, pairing nicely with versatile Forward Paul Millsap (18.1 PTS, 44.1% FG, 8.2 REB, 3.8 AST, 1.5 STL, 1.0 BLK) to maintain one of the better Frontcourts in the league. It finally appears that the three-time Defensive Player of the Year may have actually been humbled by his experience in Houston, checking his ego at the door and simply getting back to basics, which has helped Atlanta evolve into one of the better defensive teams in the NBA; with Howard anchoring the paint, Budenholzer’s charges have yielded 104.0 points (11th Overall) on 44.9% shooting from the field (9th Overall), including 49.2% from within the three-point arc (9th Overall). Furthermore, they’ve managed to remain aggressive, forcing 15.6 turnovers (3rd Overall), while committing just 17.9 fouls a night, fourth-fewest in the league. His impact was readily apparent when he and his teammates met his former associates back on November 5th, a 112-97 Hawks’ victory in which the home side managed to slow down the visiting juggernaut. Atlanta held Houston to a mere 43.5% shooting from the field, while harassing them into a staggering twenty-six turnovers, which played no small part in the host’s stellar 52.9% shooting overall. For his efforts, Howard had his way around the rim, totaling twenty points on an efficient 8-of-10 shooting (80.0%), along with fifteen rebounds, three assists, a steal, and a pair of blocks. And if you were wondering, Harden scored a game-high thirty points on 10-of-19 shooting (52.6%), but coughed up the rock eight times, despite dishing out eleven assists. However, as they like to say, that was then and this is now; Atlanta has struggled to find consistency as the All-Star Break approaches, going 4-4 over their last eight outings after a stretch in which they had won nine out of ten. Fatigue could certainly be an issue for these guys, who in addition to replacing sharpshooting Forward Kyle Korver (since traded to Cleveland) are dealing with a thinner rotation with the likes of Thabo Sefolosha (7.6 PTS, 45.7% FG, 4.3 REB, 1.6 AST, 1.7 STL) and Tiago Splitter sidelined with respective ailments. This could really be an issue given that tonight’s contest is the second half of a back-to-back, as the Hawks got hammered by the surging Miami Heat last night in a 116-93 beatdown. In a game that was never close, Budenholzer watched helplessly as his charges labored around the court, shooting a miserable 39.5% from the field, including 7-of-26 from three (26.9%), while numbering more turnovers (fifteen) and assists (thirteen). Neither Millsap or Howard offered much, combining for just fifteen points on 6-of-18 shooting (33.3%), with both players pulled from action before the start of the final stanza.
Meanwhile, the Rockets (36-16, 3rd in Western Conference) are probably happy to see January now in their rearview mirror, for while it started out like gangbusters, the lion’s share of the month was spent mired in what has arguably been their most uneven stretch since the beginning of the season. After a spectacular 19-2 run, Houston has come crashing back down to Earth over the past three weeks, losing seven out of their last twelve outings, including three out of their previous four. After lighting up scoreboards in the month of December (120.9 PTS), January sang a rather different tune for Mike D’Antoni’s charges who saw their production plummet to 112.3 Points per Game on 46.1% shooting from the field. Granted, most teams would be thrilled to be scoring that much, but the issue with this team is that due to the way that D’Antoni and the Front Office have configured this roster, they absolutely HAVE to score a wealth of points in order to defeat their opponents on a regular basis. Throughout his coaching career, D’Antoni has been lauded as an offensive guru, capable of crafting some of the most prolific attacks that the NBA has seen over the past ten years. However, whether it’s been in Phoenix, New York, or Los Angeles, it’s almost always come at the expense of the defense, which slowly but surely is becoming the case in Houston. Month by Month, the Rockets have regressed on the defensive end; in November they permitted a respectable 106.9 points on 46.9% shooting from the field while, followed by 108.1 points on 44.0% shooting from the floor in December, and in January have thus seen those figures rise to 109.8 points on 47.8% shooting respectively. Simply put, this is a team that can’t sustain lapses on the offensive end of the court because their defense cannot carry the weight. Coincidentally, January was also the first month out of the season in which these guys were outrebounded (Minus-2.2), all the while relinquishing a staggering 25.2 Assists per Game. When you’re getting beat on the glass and allowing the opposition to move the ball with that kind of fluidity, it’s a telltale sign of a lack of effort on this end of the floor, which was ultimately the major skepticism when D’Antoni was hired in the first place. Sure, they’re leading the league in scoring (114.1 PTS) and are jacking up more three-pointers than anyone has in quite a while (39.6 3FGA), but accentuating their strengths has also further magnified their weaknesses, which leaves this team in an awkward place moving forward. However, one of their number not in an awkward place is James Harden (28.4 PTS, 44.4% FG, 34.3% 3FG, 8.2 REB, 11.5 AST, 1.4 STL), who with the ball in his playmaking hands now more than ever, has become a virtual Triple-Double Machine, logging fifteen of them, including a ridiculous 51-point performance back on January 27th in a victory over the Philadelphia 76ers. After the drama and controversy that poisoned the lockerroom last season, many were left with the impression that this guy wasn’t necessarily a team-first leader. Many more panned D’Antoni’s decision to move the mercurial gunner to Point Guard, but that transition has paid off handsomely, as Harden has proved his naysayers wrong, and is actually leading the league in assists. Furthermore, his Supporting Cast is beginning to prove that the Rockets are possibly much more than just the bearded MVP candidate; in Tuesday Night’s 105-83 throttling of the Sacramento Kings, Harden was neutralized after banging his knee early in the contest, but saw his teammates pick up the slack the rest of the way, as Ryan Anderson (14.2 PTS, 43.1% FG, 41.2% 3FG, 5.2 REB) and Eric Gordon (17.3 PTS, 42.1% FG, 38.6% 3FG, 2.7 REB, 2.8 AST) posted twenty-five and seventeen points respectively, while Harden finished the game with just ten. Anderson, the 2011-2012 Most Improved Player caught fire from beyond the arc, knocking down half of his twelve three-point attempts, while Gordon led the charge off the Bench, netting seven of his fifteen attempts from the field. With that said, the biggest takeaway from that victory was their play on defense; D’Antoni’s charges proved that they can in fact stymie their opponent on occasion, relegating the lifeless Kings to a miserable 34.9% shooting from the floor, while outrebounding them sixty to forty-five.
Predicted Outcome: Rockets 111, Hawks 102