The Houston Rockets look to keep moving up in the Western Conference as they host the Philadelphia 76ers, who have lost three straight.
Facing a team that hasn’t won since Christmas Day, the Houston Rockets will have to work hard to ensure they’re not the team that ends the 76ers slump. While Houston is coming off an impressive 130-104 victory over the second-seeded Denver Nuggets, Philadelphia is in freefall mode since their dominant victory over Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks. Philly has now lost against the Magic, Heat and Pacers on their post-holiday road trip.
Still, the 76ers are one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference for a reason, so recent history shouldn’t be used to predict how they’ll play when they visit the Toyota Center. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are proven All-Stars and both capable of taking over a game on any given night. With Russell Westbrook and James Harden, the Rockets have their own pair of superstars that have given the rest of the league fits so far.
In a clash of teams expected to go deep in the postseason, here are three things to watch for on Friday night.
Can Rockets Take Advantage of Struggling Sixers?
The 76ers are currently on their final game of a four-game road trip and have lost all three of their previous games on the trip, with two of those losses being by just one point each. All signs would point to them coming out hungry against Houston, eager to right the ship.
But given the Sixers’ recent struggles, if the Rockets can come out strong and land a big blow in the first quarter, it could turn into a long night for Brett Brown’s club. Philadelphia was down by as many as 36 points in their last outing against Indiana, so it could be prone to quickly becoming demoralized with a slow start.
Mike D’Antoni‘s crew proved what they’re capable of against Denver when they focus for a full game. Behind a home crowd, there’s no reason the Rockets should come out flat or let their foot off the guess against a talented Sixers squad.
Battle of Elite Point Guards
Although Russell Westbrook has been doing it much longer, he and Ben Simmons have a similar style of play when it comes to their contributions on the court. Both are a triple-double threat every time they hit the hardwood, as they always do a little bit of everything. This makes both point guards incredibly difficult to defend, as they have the ability to blow by defenders and distribute the ball to the open man at will.
Simmons is particularly excelling at distributing the ball this season, averaging a career-high 8.5 assists per game, which is good for fourth in the league. Although his rebounding has fallen off a bit from the last two seasons, he’s still pulling down seven per game, which is more than you’d expect from a point guard.
Fortunately for the Rockets, Russell Westbrook is more than capable of holding his own on the glass himself, which should make for some interesting in-game battles. Russ is averaging eight boards per game this season and seven over the course of his career.
Both guards have had struggles with shots outside of the paint throughout their careers, however, Westbrook gets a big nod in that area since Simmons at times seems borderline allergic to jump shots.
How Well Can the 76ers Run Houston off the 3-Point Line?
At 44.6 attempts per game, the Houston Rockets are easily first in the league in terms of letting it fly from downtown. With guys like James Harden, Danuel House, P.J. Tucker and Ben McLemore on the roster, D’Antoni’s scheme is often designed to create open looks for perimeter shots, which has led to the team having one of the NBA’s most potent offenses this season.
Philadelphia, by contrast, shoots only 30.1 outside shots per game, however they allow fewer attempts than any other team in the league at 27.5 per contest. Simmons and Josh Richardson are excellent at closing out to 3-point shooters, so the Rockets will need to be aware of this and use the fake and drive to combat quick closeouts.
When it comes to 3-point percentage allowed, the Sixers are in the middle of the league, allowing 35.3 percent, which is virtually what the Rockets are currently shooting (35.4). While I expect Houston to still manage to get off their fair share of long-range bombs, Friday will be the perfect opportunity for the likes of Harden and Westbrook to get into the lane and make things happen.
The national TV matchup is sure to be a good one, and it all tips off Friday on ESPN at 8 pm ET.