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Preview: Rockets vs. Wizards

Setting the scene for the Rockets' matchup with the Washington Wizards

HOUSTON - Analysis and observations from before, during and after Houston’s matchup with the Washington Wizards:

The Basics:

Washington Wizards (25-26) at Houston Rockets (35-17)

Point Differential:

Washington: -.2 (NBA rank: 15th)

Houston: +4.2 (NBA rank: 8th)

Offensive Rating (points per 100 possessions):

Washington: 101.2 (21st)

Houston: 107.6 (6th)

Defensive Rating (points allowed per 100 possessions):

Washington: 102.0 (T-9th)

Houston: 102.0 (T-9th)

Pace (number of possessions per 48 minutes):

Washington: 95.84 (17th)

Houston: 98.00 (7th)

Four Factors:

Shooting – Effective field goal percentage (eFG% is a field goal percentage that’s adjusted for made 3-pointers being 1.5 times more valuable than a 2-point shot):

Washington: 49.5% (16th)

Houston: 53.0% (3rd)

Turnovers – Turnover ratio (the number of turnovers a team averages per 100 possessions):

Washington: 15.3 (T-12th)

Houston: 16.4 (28th)

Rebounding – Rebound percentage (the percentage of total rebounds obtained)

Washington: 49.9% (17th); offensive rebound rate: 24.8% (21st); defensive rebound rate: 76.0% (4th)

Houston: 51.5% (8th); offensive rebound rate: 26.9% (12th); defensive rebound rate: 73.0% (T-24th)

Free Throws – Free throw rate (the rate at which a team goes to the line relative to the number of field goals it attempts):

Washington: .254 (25th)

Houston: .392 (1st)

Well, well, well. Go figure, right around the time the Rockets finally achieve some semblance of good health, they begin playing their best basketball of the season. Funny how that works.

Houston, of course, is currently riding a season-high six-game win streak and has a chance to extend its run to seven before the All-Star break begins. To do so, they’ll have to take care of business tonight against a Washington Wizards team that’s no longer a pushover – a reality with which the Rockets surely are well familiar in the wake of their wild, wacky and seemingly never-ending January win in the nation’s capital. Not nearly enough time has gone by for anyone involved to forget the particulars of that night: Not only was the game marred by multiple, lengthy delays due to a leaky roof, but it also featured a remarkable 30-point turnaround as Washington transformed a 25-point third quarter deficit into a five-point fourth quarter advantage, only to see the Rockets finish the contest with a 17-4 run of their own to escape with a sorely needed victory. Houston is surely hoping for the same result this evening, only with less drama and fewer (read: zero) delays.

Assuming the club continues its current form, the odds will most definitely be in its favor. The Rockets have scored like gangbusters and defended like demons during their six-game run, allowing them to ring up a net rating of +11.6 during that stretch – a mark that is tied with Indiana’s for tops in the league over that span.

And for those in need of further reasons for optimism, there are these little nuggets: no team boasts a higher win percentage (.833) or fewer losses against Eastern Conference competition this season than do the Rockets, who are 15-3 against their Eastern brethren thus far during the 2013-14 campaign and 20-5 overall against below .500 competition. The Wizards, meanwhile, are just 8-13 versus the West and 8-16 against clubs .500 or better. Make of those numbers what you will.

Know Thy Enemy

- It’s been both exhilarating and mildly terrifying to watch John Wall build upon his strong second half of last season as he continues to make the leap into full-fledged NBA stardom. Few players are as breathtaking in the open floor as Wall is when he builds up a head of steam so priority one for Houston’s defense tonight will be containing the Wizards’ transition attack and forcing them to score in the half-court as much as possible (Related: Washington is fourth in the NBA in transition scoring efficiency, but just 24th in half-court situations, per Synergy Sports).

The 23-year-old is the magical talisman that powers the Wizards’ attack, as their offense absolutely falls into the Balrog-laden abyss whenever he heads to the bench for a breather. With Wall on the floor, Washington posts an offensive rating of 104.1; without him that number plummets to 91.7 – effectively the difference from going to Golden State’s offense to one that is far worse than any other team in the league.

The key with Wall is keeping him out of the restricted area – a task far easier said than done obviously. Wall shoots better than 64 percent from that precious piece of real estate, but his hit rate from all other locations combined is less than 32 percent. He’s also demonstrated a strong preference for the right side of the floor: Wall has hit nearly 42 percent from the right elbow and the right wing beyond the 3-point arc, but his shooting percentage sits in the 20s and 30s from nearly every other locale aside from the aforementioned restricted area.

- One other Wall note: Both he and teammate Bradley Beal are among the league leaders in pull-up jumpers per game. It should be noted, however, that each player has hit fewer than 37 percent of such shot attempts this season.

- Speaking of Beal, the second-year guard is coming off a career night in Memphis where he exploded for 37 points during his club’s narrow 92-89 loss to the Grizzlies. The University of Florida product entered the league blessed with a sweet shooting stroke and it’s clear he’s starting to tap into that potential. Beal has already become one of the best above-the-break 3-point shooters in the game, as the 20-year-old is currently connecting on better than 46 percent of his shots from there.

- Washington has also received strong perimeter shooting from the likes of Martell Webster and Trevor Ariza this season, the latter of whom is connecting from deep at a career-best rate. Both players are among the more prolific catch-and-shoot shot takers in the league; each attempts about five catch-and-shoot 3s per game and hits them at a clip of better than 40 percent. Both players must be closely monitored when lurking in the corners as they’re a big reason why the Wizards reside in the league’s top-five in terms of corner 3s attempted per contest.

- Doubling back to the earlier point about the importance of keeping Washington’s transition opportunities to a minimum: The Wizards rank in the NBA’s top-five in pace adjusted scoring via turnovers and fast break points. Turnovers are inevitable – the Rockets are, after all, 28th in turnover rate this season – but Houston must ensure that the vast majority of those miscues are not of the live-ball variety.

- A big reason why the Wizards tend to struggle in the half-court lies in the fact that Washington ranks dead last in the league in pick-and-roll scoring efficiency, according to Synergy Sports. In pick-and-roll possessions that end in a field goal attempt, turnover or free throw by the ball-handler, the Wizards are generating a paltry .669 points per possession. Include passes out of those plays and that number improves to .828, but it still places Washington 28th in the league in that category.

- On the other side of the ball, however, the Wizards rank third in the league in defending pick-and-roll ball-handlers, per Synergy, setting up an intriguing game-within-the-game matchup with a Houston team that ranks third in that category on the offensive end.

Washington’s defense also ranks highly in terms of its ability to handle spot-ups and post-ups, but the Wizards have struggled mightily in isolation, an area in which Synergy places them 28th in the league – a weakness that in part explains why James Harden has scored at least 25 points in each of his last three games against the Wiz.

In the spotlight

You no doubt already know that Houston’s current starting five featuring Patrick Beverley, James Harden, Chandler Parsons, Terrence Jones and Dwight Howard has been downright dominant this season, compiling a net rating of +11.6 during the 329 minutes they’ve played together.

What might be surprising to learn, however, is that Washington’s opening quintet has been just as good (requisite caveat: the Wizards’ residence in the Eastern Conference and subsequent easier strength of schedule must be taken into account while digesting all these numbers). In 384 minutes of shared floor time, Washington’s starting five of Wall, Beal, Ariza, Nene and Marcin Gortat has generated a net rating of +12.2 thanks to an especially stingy defense that has conceded just 94.5 points per 100 possessions – a mark that comes very close to matching the one produced by the league-best Pacers’ D.

In other words, while it will be fun to watch these two units go head-to-head for the first time (Beverley did not play back in January), it may also be imperative for Houston to win the bench play battle.

Injury Update

Greg Smith (knee) and Isaiah Canaan (hamstring) are out. (Update: Patrick Beverley is a game-time decision with an abdominal strain.)

All stats courtesy of NBA.com except where otherwise noted.