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Houston Rockets look to push the pace against struggling Pelicans

Houston Rockets James Harden Jrue Holiday (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
Houston Rockets James Harden Jrue Holiday (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
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The Houston Rockets will look to take advantage of a struggling Pelicans team without their star Zion Williamson as they face off on Saturday.

The Houston Rockets host the New Orleans Pelicans at The Smoothie King Center on Saturday at 7 p.m. CT. Both teams will be looking to nab their first win of the season, as the Rockets started their opener against the Milwaukee Bucks with a lost and the Pelicans have lost each of their first two games on the season.

The Rockets faced off against the Pelicans four times last season and each team won two games. Ironically, both losses the Rockets faced against the Pelicans were each in Houston, including the Rockets home opener during the 2018-2019 season, in which the Rockets were crop-dusted 131-112. The last time the Rockets lost to the Pelicans in New Orleans was January 26th, 2018.

Pelicans Offseason Changes

The new-look New Orleans Pelicans made several significant changes in the offseason. They traded away their all-time franchise leader in points, rebounds, and blocks in Anthony Davis, but were able to yield quite a package in return. They acquired Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart and Brandon Ingram, and three first round picks, including the Lakers’ fourth overall draft pick of the 2019 NBA Draft.

The Pelicans then traded that draft pick to the Atlanta Hawks to land the 8th, 17th and 35th pick in the draft, which they used to draft Jaxson Hayes, Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Marcos Louzada Silva.

In addition, the Pels signed veteran sharp-shooter JJ Redick and Derrick Favors, as they continue to add depth. One of the bigger offseason moves the Pels made was hiring General Manager David Griffin, who is well respected around the league due to his work with the Cleveland Cavaliers, which culminated in the Cavs winning the 2016 NBA championship after being down three games to one against the Golden State Warriors.

The biggest offseason addition for the Pelicans was drafting former Duke sensation Zion Williamson with the first overall pick in the draft. Unfortunately, Williamson has been unable to play thus far due to knee surgery, and will also miss at least each of the first two Rockets-Pelicans match-ups.

Tale of the Tape

The season just got underway so the current rankings of the 2019-2020 season are unlikely to be the final rankings, especially for the Rockets. The Rockets shot 36.7 percent from the field and 33.3 percent from downtown in the opener against Milwaukee, which were both lower than their percentages of last year. They currently rank 30th from the field and 16th from deep. In addition, the Rockets rank 10th in assists per game, as they had 25 assists in the opener, which is actually more than the 21.2 assists the Rockets averaged last season, which was good for 28th place.

By comparison, the new-look New Orleans Pelicans have fared much better than the Rockets in the respective categories, although they have lost both of their early matches. The Pelicans currently are shooting 44 percent from the field and 39.5 percent from three, which are both good for 16th and seventh best in the league. They are also averaging 30 assists per game, which is good for second best in the league, and has also helped them average the seventh best 119 points per game. In addition, their offensive rating of 110 points per 100 possessions is ninth best in the league.

Key Matchups

Russell Westbrook vs Lonzo Ball

In the opening game against Milwaukee, Russell Westbrook finished with 24 points, which was a team high, and 16 rebounds, which was a game-high. The Pelicans will likely have Lonzo Ball defend Westbrook, as he is one of the best defenders on the team. He ranks third on the team in steals per 100 possessions, and will be relied on by the Pels to slow down The Brodie.

This will be a great match-up on the glass, as both Westbrook and Ball are two of the better rebounding point guards in the league. Lonzo is currently averaging 6.5 rebounds per game and has a career average of 6.2 rebounds per game. Westbrook has averaged double digit rebounds in each of the last three seasons as well, and his elite defensive rebounding is the key to the Rockets getting out on the break.

PJ Tucker vs Brandon Ingram

Brandon Ingram has been the Pelicans’ leading scorer so far on the season, as he’s averaging 23.5 points per game on a ridiculous 50 percent shooting from deep. The Rockets will be sure to match-up PJ Tucker on Ingram, as Tucker is a physical, tenacious defender, and we all know how much confidence Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni has in Tucker’s defense, especially in the post. To that point, D’Antoni decided to keep PJ Tucker matched up against Brook Lopez late in the game, because he feels Tucker is the team’s best defensive player in the post.

Mike D'Antoni on if he considered putting Clint Capela back in the game to guard Brook Lopez: "No, PJ is our best defender in the post."

— Salman Ali (@SalmanAliNBA) October 25, 2019

Ingram takes 20.5 percent of his field goal attemps within three feet of the basket, and shoots 50 percent from that range, so Tucker’s post-defense should be a great counter to Ingram’s scoring.

Clint Capela vs Derrick Favors

The center match-up features Clint Capela against Derrick Favors. Favors is currently averaging 11 points and seven rebounds per game for the Pels and is averaging 15.6 rebounds per 100 possessions. In the opener, Capela had 13 points and 12 rebounds, in addition to three blocked shots. He had the team’s best defensive rating, as he averaged 98 points allowed per 100 possessions against Milwaukee.

The last time Favors played significant minutes against the Rockets was during the December 6th match-up between the Utah Jazz and the Rockets, as Jazz center Rudy Gobert only played 2 minutes and 47 seconds due to an injury he suffered early in the game. During that game, Favors had 24 points and 10 rebounds and had the second best offensive rating for the Jazz, as he had 161 points per 100 possessions. During that game, Capela only had 12 points and 10 rebounds, but it wasn’t entirely due to Favors, as the Jazz have a defensive-minded coach in Quin Snyder, who is viewed as one of the best in the league. The Favors/Capela match-up will be an interesting one to watch.

Ultimate Match-Up

Harden vs Josh Hart and Nickeil Alexander-Walker

As the Pels are already playing without Zion Williamson, they will have to stop James Harden in order to have any shot at winning this game. Unfortunately, Jrue Holiday has already been ruled out of the game due to a left knee sprain. That is a big defensive blow, as Holiday was named to the NBA All-Defensive team in each of the last two years.

This is a game where Harden could really light up the Pelicans, who he averaged 31 points per game against last season. The last time Harden faced a Pelicans team without Holiday and Anthony Davis, he scored 28 points in just 28 minutes and shot 52.6 percent from the field and 50 percent from deep. Obviously this is a different Pelicans team, but nonetheless, Harden is the best scorer in the league, and arguably in league history.

Expect to see alot of Josh Hart and Nickeil Alexander-Walker on Harden, as they have each been the Pelicans best two defenders on the season so far, and they combine for 5.2 steals per 100 possessions. To that point, Alexander-Walker has the best defensive rating on the team and leads the team in steals per 100 possessions and per 36 minutes.

Hart has the Pels’ second best defensive rating and ranks second on the team in steals per 100 possessions. On the offensive end, Hart will be a tough match-up, as he has the Pelicans’ third best offensive rating and will likely start with Holiday out. Hart is the second leading scorer on the Pels, as he averages 15.5 points per game on 40 percent shooting from deep. In addition, Hart is the Pels leading rebounder, as he is currently averaging 9.5 rebounds per game this season.

Both Hart and Alexander-Walker have the size to match-up with Harden defensively, as they each stand 6-foot-5 but they will have a tough task stopping the league’s best offensive player.

Conclusion

After going 2-2 against the Pelicans last season, the Rockets need to take the Pelicans seriously with or without Jrue Holiday. To that point, Holiday is only the fifth leading scorer on the team as he has averaged 10.5 points per game. This is a young, hungry Pelicans team who would love to show the basketball world that they need to be taken serious, and winning without Jrue Holiday will certainly do that.

Next. Goals for everyone on the Houston Rockets for 2019-20

For the Rockets, they are coming off a disappointing loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, in which they led 66-50 at halftime but melted in the second half as they were out-scored 67-45. After the game, Harden said that the loss was his fault, as he aims to be more aggressive. Expect Harden to do just that against a Pelicans team without Holiday.

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