The big news of the day for the Rockets entering tonight’s game versus the Denver Nuggets is the anticipated return of Dwight Howard.
Though Houston has played well without their big man (8-3) his presence will dramatically improve the squads capabilities on both ends of the court. James Harden has been nothing short of spectacular in Howard’s absence skyrocketing to the top of the league in scoring with 26.4 points per game.
Perhaps what is more impressive is the complete game Harden has displayed over the course of the season where he ranks among the league leaders in several categories. The one area coach Kevin McHale is likely looking to change for Harden though will be reducing his stars minutes. With Howard back hopefully this will translate into some much needed rest for Harden who has been dealing with his own injury issues battling through back spasms.
Denver last played Wednesday when they ended a 4-game losing streak in dramatic fashion by beating Miami 102-82. As much as Houston has been dealing with a depleted roster due to injury the Nuggets have also had their own issues with JaVal McGee, Danilo Gallinari, Ty Lawson, Kenneth Faried and Nate Robinson all spending time on the injured list.
The teams will face each other twice in the next 5-days. Ideally Howard will ease his way back into the mix tonight with the team also re-adjusting to him being back in the line-up.
Keys to the game:
- With Dwight Howard back Houston can look for better paint protection and rebounding
- Howard’s return should also translate into better ball movement and floor spacing
- When Denver runs or gets out in transition they become deadly, so controlling the pace and transition defense is vital
Rockets: The injury bug continues to rear it’s ugly head as Francisco Garcia and Isaiah Canaan are close to returning but Kostas Papanikolaou and Terrence Jones remain out with no projected return date. Although Howard will return the load the active players have carried (especially the starters) is beginning to take a toll as both James Harden and Trevor Ariza are dealing with back spasms.
Nuggets: JaVale McGee, Nate Robinson and Danilo Gallinari are listed as being out.
Guards: James Harden/Patrick Beverley vs Ty Lawson, Arron Afflalo
Great match-up at the point guard with scrappy defender Beverley facing offensive speedster Lawson who leads his team in scoring and assists. Also an interesting shooting guard contest with Harden who has literally carried the Rockets on his aching back without Howard and the ever capable Afflalo who hasn’t translated his offensive prowess from last season into his return to Denver.
Edge: Rockets. Afflalo needs to find what made him successful last year and stop spending so much time playing bully ball. He just seems like a completely different player and not in a good way.
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Front Court: Trevor Ariza, Donatas Motiejunas, Dwight Howard vs Wilson Chandler, J.J, Hickson, Timofey Mozgov
Maybe I’m expecting too much from Howard in his return, but like OKC stars Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant experienced in their first outing they were awesome. Their second game back was when we noticed the rust appear in the form of timing, conditioning and flow. We can attribute that to good old adrenaline. When you’ve missed any length of time you’re amped to play, which Howard will be.
The other huge factor will be Motiejunas who should be the guy who benefits the most from Howard’s return. With the improvements Motiejunas has demonstrated inside the paint, coupled with his outside range he’ll now become a problem for opposing coaches to game plan for given that versatility.
Ariza was listed as probable as both he and Harden deal with back spasms, but he’s a trooper. All they need him to do is spread the floor, hit a few shots (or be a threat to) and more importantly play solid defense.
For Denver Chandler has proven to be a key part of their offense and although Hickson isn’t a huge scoring threat he is fundamentally sound in the paint. With Howard back accompanied by Motiejunas though they’ll make scoring in the paint much more difficult. Mozgov had become the poster boy for dunkers around the Association but has shown great growth this season. Hey, when there are rumors swirling that LeBron James wants him on his team you know he’s doing something right.
Edge: Rockets – Dwight is back and the team will have to readjust to him being on the court again, but I say his first game back the entire team benefits from his energy and excitement
Bench: Tarik Black Jason Terry, Nick Johnson, Joey Dorsey, Troy Daniels vs Kenneth Faried, Darrell Arthur, Alonzo Gee, Gary Harris, Jusuf Nurkic
Even with Howard returning there are still key players out for Houston, but it’s amazing what adding one talent back to the bench can do to raise the levels of everyone. Coach McHale now can bring in Black and Dorsey to help defend and rebound and the extra minutes Johnson and Daniels received during Howard’s absence have helped build the entire benches confidence.
Arthur has arguably been the best bench contributor for Denver this season and Nurkic plays with a great deal of focus and energy. Denver’s ace though is Faried who’ll come off the bench as he returns from back spasms (seems to be an epidemic of back spasms this year). Faried signed a huge contract and has yet to prove he warranted it. Does make me wonder which occurs first: Faried gets traded or Brian Shaw becomes the first coach to be fired this season.
Edge: Split: I’ll give the scoring edge to Denver and the rebounding/defensive edge to the Rockets
Pick: While I expect there to be some rust on Dwight given the number of games he’s missed and the nature of his injury, the sheer size of Houston’s front court and the opportunity for better floor spacing will result in a double digit win in my opinion.