Houston Rockets at Raptors: Preview & 3 keys to victory

Mar 30, 2015; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) tries to get around Toronto Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan (10) at the Air Canada Centre. Toronto defeated Houston 99-96. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 30, 2015; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) tries to get around Toronto Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan (10) at the Air Canada Centre. Toronto defeated Houston 99-96. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports /
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A mostly grounded Rockets team is in town to face the Raptors. Can our guys beat another Western team?

The Toronto Raptors’ next opportunity to extend their team-record home win streak tips off at suppertime on Sunday, as the Houston Rockets are in town. In stark contrast to the pleasant surprise the Portland Trail Blazers have provided their fans, the Rox have been a massive disappointment. Last year’s Houston squad finished 56-26; this year’s confused version is currently two games under .500, and barely clinging to the Western Conference’s final playoff spot. They might be better off missing the post-season entirely; that way they won’t have to face the Golden State Warriors in a first round mismatch and will participate in the draft lottery.

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The standard solution for a floundering team begins with dumping the coach. Houston did that, punting Hall-of-Famer Kevin McHale following a 4-7 start. J.B. Bickerstaff hasn’t exactly turned the Rox into even a facsimile of last year’s beasts. So what’s going on? How can a team with two superstars (by reputation anyway) in James Harden and Dwight Howard be scuffling like this?

Feb 27, 2016; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets head coach J.B. Bickerstaff talks with center Dwight Howard (12) during the fourth quarter against the San Antonio Spurs at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 27, 2016; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets head coach J.B. Bickerstaff talks with center Dwight Howard (12) during the fourth quarter against the San Antonio Spurs at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports /

As Dwane Casey reminds us incessantly, winning starts with defense. The Rockets allow the fifth-most opposition points in the NBA, “ahead” of also-rans like the Lakers, 76ers and Kings. I like offense a great deal, but the only team which consistently wins shootouts is Golden State. San Antonio allows its foes an absurd 92.2 points per game [PG], which is 4.7 better than the league’s next best defensive squad (the Miami Heat – full marks to them). The Spurs are ready for the playoffs right this minute.

Dwight Howard used to be a top-drawer defensive centre, but he’s 30, and has 11+ seasons under his belt. While he’s averaging a double-double this year, and for his career, his numbers have displayed the kind of slippage one would expect. He’s never going to average 38.3 minutes PG of burn like he did his last season in Orlando, nor should he. Dwight is still a formidable giant to face in the paint, but his blocked shots are barely half what they were in his best seasons.

Harden has never been a defender. He looks like Vince Carter waving at his cover while trying to play his way out of Toronto. Harden stays on the floor because there are precious few players on this planet who can provide scoring like The Beard. He pours in shots from everywhere, and is particularly lethal when attacking the basket using his remarkable speed. Harden averages 9.0 made free throws PG, easily the league’s best. DeMar DeRozan is third at 7.2. Harden is happy to dish as well; his 7.0 assists PG rank tenth.

The other starters don’t scare anyone. Patrick Beverley is named at the point, but he averages 2.7 assists. Who’s kidding whom? Power forward Donatas Motiejunas was traded, then returned to Houston after failing a physical. He claims he’s happy to be back. If so, he’s a candidate for sainthood. Trevor Ariza at small forward is a solid veteran.

Houston’s bench features experience, with useful defender Corey Brewer and savvy guard Jason Terry topping the list. Watch for mobile big man Clint Capela.

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The Raptors are coming off a scary victory against Portland, and shouldn’t have the same degree of tension against the Rox if they…:

  1. …run the fast break. Houston played a wounded but dangerous Chicago Bulls team on Saturday, and shouldn’t be able to keep up to a rested Raptors squad. Howard will be a problem; he ranks third in offensive rebounds. Jonas Valanciunas will need to box him out, and avoid early fouls.
  2. …give Norman Powell a lot of help. Harden is a nearly impossible cover for experienced defenders – what chance does a small rookie have? Norman must concede the long ball, and nudge Harden towards the big men when he drives.
  3. …work the ball around the perimeter for open 3-balls. Houston allows the fourth-most opposition long-ball attempts in the NBA, and gives up the seventh-worst percentage. Our team has more than enough shooters to take advantage.

Like the Portland game, both teams’ defenses are going to be challenged. Let’s say we can outscore them. Toronto 114-Houston 109.