Rockets News

Josh Smith Set To Debut in Southwest Division Battle

By Tamberlyn Richardson
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Entering tonight’s match versus Memphis we were already pumped to face the team directly ahead of us in both the division and West standings, but now the game takes on even more relevance as it’s likely newly signed power forward Josh Smith will make his debut as a Rocket.

We won’t know until game time whether he’ll start, but it’s likely in his first outing coach Kevin McHale may bring Smith in off the bench until the team has time to get additional practice time in with the power forward and teach him their offensive and defensive schemes.

Memphis on losing streak:

If we were to pick two teams potentially on opposite ends of the luck spectrum in the past week it may well be Houston and Memphis. The Rockets are coming off the high of beating Portland (currently ranked 2-seed in the West), just completed a trade that brought Corey Brewer and Alexey Shved to the team and were finally welcoming back players who had been languishing on the injured list like Dwight Howard and Kostas Papanikolaou.

Conversely Memphis who shot out of the gate this season has been struggling of late having lost 3-consecutive games to Chicago, Cleveland and Utah and have been dealing with injuries to key players, specifically power forward Zach Randolph has been nursing a knee injury which has kept him out of the past 2-contests.

Defensive Intensity:

Both teams rank in the top-10 defensively.

Houston rank second allowing 97.5 points per 100 possessions

Memphis rank ninth allowing 101.5 points per 100 possessions

Offensive Prowess:

While Memphis has been among the league leaders in offense scoring 107.1 points per 100 possessions they’ve been slipping of late especially during their losing streak where they’ve averaged just 93-points per game.

For Houston they’ve been hampered most of the season by an offense unable to match last season’s high standard  mostly due to the injuries they had to deal with. This seemingly changed with Howard’s return to the line-up. Their season average of 100. 1 points per game has increased to 104 points per game since Howard’s return.  The greater gain will be recognized as the team is able to practice more with new recruits Brewer,  Shved and Smith. In addition with Papanikolaou’s return and Donatas Motiejunas now moving to join the reserves it should translate into an increase in the one area Houston has struggled this season: their bench.

The Power of 5:

With 6’9″ Josh Smith now joining 6’1″ Patrick Beverley, 6’5″ James Harden, 6’8″ Trevor Ariza and the 6’11” Howard the Rockets now boast potentially the most versatile starting line-up of tall, agile and diverse players in the Association. While I’ll concede one game won’t tell us everything it will give us some initial insight as to how this team will look moving forward. Where we should see some immediate returns is by how this group will spread the floor and by how quickly they’ll be able to move the ball with speed being another factor now present with wings Ariza and Smith.

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Memphis Front Court Mastery:

While we aren’t sure if Zach Randolph will play this evening it should be noted their front court is among the league’s best in many categories lead by early MVP candidate Marc Gasol.

They rank third in front court efficiency with a point differential of plus +8.7 and rank second in the paint with +12.8 differential.  Gasol ranks third at center efficiency (+23.4) just behind his brother (which makes me wonder if this accomplishment has ever occurred prior in the NBA) and Howard ranks just behind Gasol in fourth (+23.2).

Randolph ranks 5th at power forward (+20.2) and the team ranks fourth at the position with a plus +6.5 efficiency. All stats via hoopsstats.com

Walking Wounded:

Memphis:

  • Zach Randoph (knee) did not participate in the morning shoot around and remains questionable for tonight’s game
  • Tony Allen (eye) was removed from the injured list so should be in the line up tonight

Houston:

  • Harden (hamstring) and Howard (shoulder) were both listed as questionable, however it’s likely they’ll play
  • The Houston player who might miss tonight’s game is Beverley who is listed as questionable due to an illness

Bench Mob:

As highlighted above while Houston has languished in the bottom of the Association in almost every category these stats are bound to rebound with injured players returning and new recruits now in the fold. While Brewer got out to an especially hot start in his debut we’ll watch this evening to see if that was a mirage or if it was a sign of things to come.

It will also be interesting to see how Motiejunas fares coming off the bench. Will he excel facing other reserves and be as committed as he’s shown to be as a starter or will he require time to adjust and will the demotion of sorts affect his confidence are all things we’ll be watching for. My guess is he’ll be looking to make a statement which bodes well for  bench stat improvements.

The reality is the Rockets can now feature any of Isaiah Canaan/Shved, Brewer/Nick Johnson/Jason Terry, Papanikolaou, Motiejunas and Joey Dorsey to match up versus the opposition. That’s a  pretty impressive assortment of youth, speed, shooters, size and versatility to counter any oppositions’ moves.

Memphis bench hasn’t fared much better although Vince Carter seems to be returning to form following a short stint recovering from off season ankle surgery. He could prove to be the x-factor this evening, so Houston will need to game plan for him.

Advantages:

  • Houston has a real advantage behind the arc where they make almost double the amount of threes per game (11.7) to the Grizzlies (5.6)
  • Further compounding this advantage is Memphis does not defend the arc well allowing the fourth most threes per game (8.5) while the Rockets are the third best perimeter defenders (6.4)

Key Match-up:

The key for Houston will be limiting Mike Conley and Marc Gasol as they are the keys to shutting down Memphis.

History not on Rockets side:

  • Memphis has won 7 of the past 8 contests on their home court
  • Since joining Houston, James Harden has his lowest scoring average versus Memphis (18.4 points per game)

Keys to Winning:

  • Slow the production of Conley and his ability to enter the paint
  • Push the ball in transition: with the addition of Smith we could see some real speed on the wings. Houston needs to take advantage of that speed.
  • Houston needs to lower their turnovers (17.1 per game), especially since Memphis are among the best at forcing turnovers while limiting their opposition.
  • With the new recruits and return of Motiejunas to the reserves Houston needs to utilize their bolstered bench to build a lead
  • We’ll get a good idea right out of the gate how the new experiment of Josh Smith will work as he’ll join Howard in trying to stifle Gasol and Randolph in the paint

The Pick:

The odds makers favor Memphis by 2-points. All logical assessment isn’t very helpful given Memphis beat Houston with Howard in the line-up, but lost to them without him. Regardless if Randolph plays Houston will still be acclimatizing to adding Smith with the starters. I say Smith comes out like Brewer did in his debut looking to make an immediate impact and doing everything SVG wished he would in Detroit. lt should be a close contest especially with Memphis on a 3-game losing streak which tends to bode well for Memphis as Houston will  be looking to integrate Smith on the fly.  Still, like Brewer’s debut I tend to go with a player who is amped to showcase his abilities and will be running on adrenaline so I’ll take Rockets by 2.

See you back here after the game where we’ll rank the team’s performance and individual players  on their execution

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