The Southwest Division will have two divisional matchups played out on Friday night as the San Antonio Spurs welcome the Houston Rockets and the division leading Memphis Grizzlies travel to New Orleans.
On paper, these two games don’t present much in the way of interesting matchups, but games aren’t played on paper, and this is the NBA, where on any given night a team with a pathetic record can rise to the occasion to provide the week’s most surprising upset. So, let’s take a look at these two games and see what the key factors for each are.
SAN ANTONIO VS HOUSTON
This could be a statement game for the Rockets who surpassed the .500 mark on Tuesday with a narrow victory over the struggling Los Angeles Lakers. With younger legs and guards who like to penetrate, Houston will be focused on the painted area where they are third in the league in scoring. Defensively, however, the matchups in the front court could present problems as they struggle to defend the paint, an area Tim Duncan has been known to succeed in.
Running the floor will be difficult for Houston as San Antonio is one of the best defensive teams in the league when it comes to defending the fast break. Houston is one of the worst, so letting it become a fast paced game actually favors the more experienced team in the Spurs rather than Houston’s youth and speed.
The Rockets could put Omer Asik on Duncan to try and limit his effectiveness on the offensive end, but whether Asik is up to the task or not is another matter. If he is successful and the Rockets can force players like DeJuan Blair and Boris Diaw to beat them to rebounds and points in the paint, they’ll give themselves a real chance.
Gary Neal will have his hands full with James Harden, but it isn’t as if he and sixth man Manu Ginobili haven’t seen plenty of Harden before. In the Western Conference Finals last season, Harden averaged 18.5 points per game against the Spurs off of Oklahoma City’s bench. While he played better in the home games, Harden will certainly be looking to repeat his solid performances in such a big game for Houston.
His back court partner in Jeremy Lin will need to step it up after playing light minutes against the Lakers giving way to Toney Douglas. Lin hasn’t proven worth the Rockets investment in him as he is averaging a mere 10 points, 6 assists per game, stats that won’t lead the Rockets to victory on Friday night. He’ll be facing a future hall of famer in Tony Parker, who will look to expand on the 22 points, 8 assists per game that he’s averaging over the last three games.
Prediction: Given Lin’s current play and Douglas’ inconsistency, the Spurs will win the battle of the back court. Houston gives up 102.6 points per game, the second worst total in the league. That number is also San Antonio’s scoring average as the fifth best scoring team in basketball. Barring a defensive miracle from Asik and Lin, it’s hard to see Houston really running with San Antonio for more than three quarters. The fourth is usually when the Spurs pull away as they lead the league in fourth quarter scoring.
Final score: Spurs 98-86 Rockets
NEW ORLEANS HORNETS vs MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES
New Orleans has been making more headlines for their proposed name change than anything they’re doing on the court, but the young Hornets are racking up every stat except wins.
Greivis Vasquez is having the type of coming out season careers are built on averaging 13 points and 9 assists per game and has been backed up by Ryan Anderson having a career year and Robin Lopez matching the best numbers of his career thus far. It hasn’t been enough, however, as the Hornets continuously struggle with a record of 5-12.
The Grizzlies are a solid defensive team who don’t give up easy baskets very often. They are one of the league’s leaders in opponent shooting percentage and are a solid rebounding team. New Orleans’ only hope is to shoot a high percentage as they lack a solid rebounder outside of Lopez with Anthony Davis injured.
Memphis is a team that can run the floor and score in the paint. While New Orleans does defend the paint adequately, they aren’t so hot in getting out the break or stopping their opponent doing it. The Grizzlies have the benefit of better matchups throughout the front court and are as good as New Orleans in the back court, so look for them to flex their muscle as division leaders throughout this one.
Prediction: Memphis should roll over New Orleans but you can never tell with this Hornets team. If Anderson gets hot from three point range and Vasquez plays like he has throughout much of the rest of the season, the Hornets are a team that can give any team a challenge. Unfortunately for the home fans in this one, their team is going to simply be outmuscled. The Grizzlies will run the floor well with Mike Conley and Rudy Gay, make it hard for the Hornets to find open shots with their defense and with Zach Randolph squaring up against Anderson, there is little doubt about who will win the rebound battle. Look for Memphis to pull away in the second and third quarters as they are usually when the Grizzlies are at their best.
Final score: Memphis 106-88 New Orleans