We knew the big men were out, but the story of tonight’s game between the Houston Rockets and Sacramento Kings will be whether James Harden plays.
When TNT scheduled tonight’s game they were expecting a heavy weight show down between two of the league’s best centers: Dwight Howard and DeMarcus Cousins. Unfortunately both are out as Howard misses his eleventh straight game due to an injured knee while Cousins will miss his eighth straight game after contracting viral meningitis. The story of the game though is whether James Harden will play.
What separates the teams is how well they’ve fared in the absence of their All-Star worthy centers. While Houston has won seven of ten games without Howard, Sacramento has sputtered losing five of the last seven games without Cousins. And, if you’re a fan of dominant centers check out this article by Joel Wagler who sat down with Director Kevin Willmott to discuss his film “Jayhawkers” exploring the recruitment and college career of Wilt Chamberlain for the Kansas Jayhawks.
What could have a greater impact on tonight’s game is the Rockets played their starters heavy minutes in the loss to Golden State who didn’t take control of the game until the final quarter when they outscored Houston 32-17. Utilizing primarily eight of the ten players dressed this will factor into tonight’s contest as Sacramento was idle Wednesday.
In fairness, the fact Houston has accumulated a 16-5 record with the copious injuries they’ve had to deal with is nothing short of remarkable. James Harden has been stellar in leading the squad to their fifth place Western record (second in the Southwest Division) and has many analysts thinking his leadership and production merit MVP consideration. Harden himself is dealing with back spasms though it didn’t hamper him Wednesday as he produced a healthy stat line of: 34 points, 7 rebounds (1 offensive), 4 assists and 4 steals in 39:35 minutes.
Moving ahead to tonight’s contest on the back end of consecutive games the Rockets will have the pressures of rebounding with a short handed squad and a starting line-up who all played heavy minutes except Tarik Black. Further complicating things is Harden’s back spasms could add him to the list of the walking wounded on the sidelines.
The teams faced each other November 26th with Houston coming out the victor 102-89. Notably DeMarcus Cousins was a the key producer for Sacramento scoring 29 points, collected 17 rebounds and 6 assists. In Cousins absence Rudy Gay has stepped up increasing his field goal and three-point percentage and is distributing the ball at a career high level.
For the Rockets the injury bug continues to rear it’s ugly head as Dwight Howard, Kostas Papanikolaou, Terrence Jones and Isaiah Canaan are all listed as out. Francisco Garcia may return to action however the big news is James Harden is listed as questionable due to back spasms.
- Houston holds a big edge in point differential with a plus four differential to Sacramento who are even in this department and have been performing at a negative without Cousins.
- The Kings rank in the top-5 for rebounding with Reggie Evans helping to fill the void of Cousins
- Sacramento ranks last in assists having dropped to this rank without the services of their big man due to the Kings offense primarily running through him
- Both teams rank bottom-5 for turnovers. Ultimately, the game will be decided on who can retain possession of the ball by limiting their turnovers
- To that end, Houston will have the edge as they rank top-5 in steals (3) while Sacramento ranks 29th
Guards: James Harden/Patrick Beverley vs Darren Collison, Ben McLemore
Much of the game hinges on whether Harden will play through his back spasms or not. Watching him leave the court Wednesday he certainly didn’t look like he’d be able to bend over to lace up his sneakers let alone lead the charge against the height of the Kings. Beverley having just returned from injury is still rounding into game form, but will provide his scrappy defense and be assigned the task of shutting down Collison.
The loss of Collison was obvious for the Clippers who took several games to manage a flow to their game. He’s fit in well with the Kings providing a more prototypical point guard than Thomas who was a shoot first guard. McLemore has grown and while he knows Stauskas has the potential to take his spot (when he gains confidence) appears to be thriving with that added pressure.
Edge: It all comes down to whether Harden plays: if he does Rockets have the edge, if he doesn’t the Rockets lose the backcourt battle and the game
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Front Court: Trevor Ariza, Donatas Motiejunas, Tarik Black vs Rudy Gay, Jason Thompson, Reggie Evans
With so many main players out the starters have been carrying a heavy load both in terms of minutes and contribution. Ariza may have been the most under rated pick-up of the off season with his defensive prowess paying huge dividends and being a key factor in the Rockets improved defense. Motiejunas is showing steady growth providing a second or third scoring option most nights. Black may be the best surprise on the team having transitioned well from the college ranks while balancing the ability to play within himself and simultaneously provide energy for his teammates to feed off.
Gay has shouldered the heavy lifting both in terms of leadership and production in Cousins absence and while their record doesn’t bear the fruit of his labors he appears much more comfortable in Sacramento then he did in Toronto. Reggie Evans has been huge in the absence of Cousins on the boards and is showcasing a trimmed down body which has translated in better offensive production.
Edge: Rockets – Even with Evans delivering double-digit rebounding the ability of Ariza and Motiejunas to stretch the floor will play a huge factor. I’m sure at least once tonight we’ll see the crafty Evans school Black on the art of drawing a foul when he’s really fouling Black.
Bench: Jason Terry, Nick Johnson, Joey Dorsey, Clint Capella, Troy Daniels vs Ramon Sessions, Omri Casspi, Derrick Williams, Carl Landry, Nic Stauskas, Ryan Hollins
Houston is stretched extremely thin with so many injuries and while Capella and Daniels both dressed last night they contributed just over a minute on the court in garbage time. The mother load of bench production will have to come from Terry, Dorsey and Johnson who all had sub-par evenings vs. Golden State scoring a cumulative 5-points. If the Rockets want to continue winning they’ll need much better production off the bench this evening.
Canadian Rookie Nic Stauskas sometimes questions whether to shoot or pass, but has the makings of a quality NBA player with high I.Q and shot making ability. Omri Casspi also appears rejuvenated having been a factor in most King victories this season. Ramon Sessions was a quality off season pick-up and Landry appears to be rounding back into the form he had prior to last season’s hip surgery.
Edge: Kings- Healthy rested bodies give the Kings a huge advantage
Pick: This will be a tough game for Houston coming off a game last night and with Harden playing at less than 100%. The game will ultimately come down to minimizing turnovers and which bench can provide an x-factor. Vegas say Kings by one and I tend to agree given the uncertainty of Harden.