The last time the Rockets played at the Palace, it was James Harden’s debut with his new team. He was frightfully good that Halloween night of 2012, scoring 37 points and handing out 12 assists as Houston overcame an 11-point fourth quarter deficit (sound familiar?) to win 105-96. Fast forward to this season, and only Harden and Chandler Parsons remain as starters on a team that went 45-37 and made the playoffs for the first time since 2009. The big addition this year has been Dwight Howard, whose presence has sent last season’s starting center, Omer Asik, to the bench.
Howard experienced a down year in 2012-13 as he recovered from back surgery and adjusted to life as Kobe Bryant’s sidekick. While his production so far is not dramatically better, this probably reflects the fact that he is again playing with a ball-dominant guard in Harden. Still, he is averaging 17.7 points per game, and his 13.0 rebounds per game trails only Minnesota’s Kevin Love.
Hot on his heels in the rebound race is Detroit’s rising star, Andre Drummond, whose 12.8 rpg and 13.4 ppg merit him consideration as the East’s top center at the tender age of 20. Those numbers already compare well to Howard’s sophomore year output of 15.8 ppg and 12.5 rpg, and for December Drummond is averaging 15.2 ppg and 14.2 rpg. He faced Howard for a few minutes in his role as the Pistons’ reserve center last season, but this will be the first time Drummond is matched up as a starter against the seven-time All-Star. While it’s too soon to expect a “changing of the guard,” we could be witnessing an epic battle between the most dominant pivot man of the past decade with the next great one.
However, since the game will be played five-on-five, let’s also take a look at how the respective teams are doing. At 17-10 Houston has achieved the Western Conference’s fifth best record, but a look at their schedule reveals a few head scratchers. Three of their defeats have been inflicted by teams with losing records – Philadelphia, Sacramento and Utah. Yet they have also produced quality wins over Golden State, Portland and San Antonio. The Rockets have the NBA’s third best offense and 12th best defense according to basketball-reference.com . They shoot more threes than any other team (27 per game), but make them at a modest 35.2 percent clip (17th). But they convert 53.3 percent of their two-point shots (2nd) and take and make the most free throws in the NBA. Since Howard makes less than 60 percent of his freebies, however, the only team shooting worse from the line is Detroit.
While the Rockets have three new starters this season, the 13-15 Pistons have four. Only Greg Monroe was a regular in 2012-13, and he has moved from center to power forward. Three new additions to the team have snagged starting roles – rookie Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith. So this squad’s ups and downs were probably predictable. Detroit has suffered five losses to teams that currently sport a losing record (Bobcats, Bulls, Grizzlies, Lakers), though three were in the playoffs last spring. Yet they have also triumphed over both Miami and Indiana on the road. The Pistons lead the league in points in the paint, offensive rebounds and steals. Their three-point defense has been poor, though it has improved of late.
Power Forward: Greg Monroe versus Terrence Jones. When the experiment of starting both Asik and Howard failed to work as well as Houston had hoped, Jones was given the starting nod. He has been productive enough (9.5 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 1.3 blocks) and has helped the Rockets’ offense become more prolific. Monroe (14.8 ppg, 8.9 rpg) will enjoy a size and experience advantage over Jones, so the Pistons need to use this to their advantage and feature him more than they have of late.
Small Forward: Josh Smith versus Chandler Parsons. Parsons is the Rockets third leading scorer at 17.0 ppg, and makes over 50 percent of his shots and over 40 percent of his threes. While Smith will be sorely tempted to help out in the paint against Howard, he cannot afford to lose track of this second-round pick gem. On offense, Smith (15.3 ppg, 6.5 rpg) must focus more on seeking to score inside rather than settling for low-percentage outside shots.
Center: Andre Drummond versus Dwight Howard. Howard gets to the foul line almost ten times a game, so he can easily get an opposing center in foul trouble. Detroit’s rebounding suffers at both ends of the floor without Drummond, so he must avoid careless fouls. Hopefully the referees will let the two behemoths bang, so the fans can enjoy what promises to be a classic confrontation. Of particular interest will be how well Howard can prevent the NBA’s leading offensive rebounder (5.4 per game) from giving the Pistons additional scoring opportunities.
Point Guard: Brandon Jennings versus Patrick Beverly. After his “coming out party” in last year’s playoffs, Beverly has supplanted Jeremy Linn in the line-up. While he is not as capable a scorer (9.6 ppg) or facilitator (2.3 apg), he is a pest on defense. For Detroit, Jennings has become the floor leader; he’s the first Piston to distribute eight assists an outing since Chauncey Billups was the starter in 2005-06. Jennings has averaged 20.3 points and made 41.1 percent of his threes in December, but his defense remains highly suspect; Kemba Walker torched him for a season-high 34 points last night.
Shooting Guard: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope versus James Harden. Harden leads the Rockets in points (23.9), assists (5.6), steals (1.5) and turnovers (4.0). Like someone else we know, he’s shooting more three-pointers per game than ever (6.5), but making them at a career-low rate of 30.6 percent. This may be the toughest defensive challenge Caldwell-Pope will face all year, as Harden makes 52.6 percent of his two-point tries and gets to the line nearly nine times a game. He struggled to contain Gerald Henderson Friday night, but he is Detroit’s best option for containing Harden. While the Pistons’ rookie only attempts three treys per outing, he has been making 40 percent of them in December.
Bench: Jeremy Lin has become Houston’s super-sub, averaging 14. 3 pg, and 4.2 apg. But he has missed the past three games with a back injury. The other key reserves are Omri Casspi, Francisco Garcia, Aaron Brooks. Asik has not played for nearly three weeks because of a thigh injury. For Detroit, Rodney Stuckey remains a top scorer at 15.2 ppg, but has also been missing in action of late due to injuries. Kyle Singler has been outstanding in December, averaging 9.5 ppg and making over 40 percent of his threes. Josh Harrellson will be relied on to spell Drummond, and his ability to stretch the floor may prove valuable. Will Bynum has also fought injuries, but will probably sub for Jennings at the point as Billups often rests on the second game of a back-to-back.
Keys to the Game
Both teams played and lost Friday night. The Rockets were in Indiana, where they were shot down 114-81 – their worst loss of the season. Harden scored only 12 points, slowed by a bad ankle and the Pacers’ stifling defense. The Pistons suffered a colossal fourth quarter collapse at home against Charlotte, surrendering a 14-point lead to fall 116-106. It was the most points they have allowed since an early November defeat at the hands of the high-octane Oklahoma City Thunder. So both teams will be looking to regain their self-respect in this contest. If Detroit plays defense against one of the NBA’s top offenses (Houston) like they did against one of the worst offenses (Charlotte), they will be in for a very long night. If the Pistons can solidify their defense and pound the rock inside on the short-handed Rockets, a win is possible. What they need is an epic effort like the one they posted against Indiana on Monday, after another fourth quarter swoon versus Portland led to a disappointing loss.