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Sunday, December 17, 2017

Men's Basketball

Rockets at top of West following win streak


Rockets

The Rockets ended November on a six-game winning streak, capping their record at 12-1 for the month and putting them at the top of the Western Conference. Now they open December with a three-game road trip. | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Houston Rockets recovered from their Nov. 14 loss to Toronto Raptors, and responded with a six-game winning streak. The 17-4 record sees the Rockets overtaking the Golden State Warriors at the top of the Western Conference standings. Their record is second in the NBA to only the Boston Celtics at 19-4.

During that win streak, the Rockets led the NBA with 120-plus points a game, including an average of almost 19 3-pointers per game. Houston placed third with a 42.6 percent clip from beyond the arc and nearly 10 steals per game.

Looking at the big picture, the Rockets still lead the NBA in 3-point attempts (44.4) and makes (16.2) per contest, while also converting a league-high 57.3 percent of their two-point shots.

Defensively, the Rockets rank second in protecting the boards, allowing only 41 rebounds and third with 9.1 steals per game.

Standout performers during the streak

The Rockets have yet to drop a game with the floor general Chris Paul in the lineup (7-0, including season-opening win at Golden State). Over the last two weeks, the veteran point guard has led the NBA with 10.33 assists and places among the 10 best point guards with 1.83 steals per contest.

Shooting guard James Harden is still on pace for an MVP season, averaging a league-best 31.5 points per game and 9.8 assists, second only to Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder. During the win streak, Harden averaged 33.5 points, 8.5 assists and 5.8 rebounds per game, in addition to 1.83 steals.

Small forward Trevor Ariza keeps delivering on both ends of the floor. During the streak, the veteran small forward scored 14-plus points a game on 54.4 percent shooting, including 3.8 3-point makes — among SFs — and stole the ball a total of nine times.

Meanwhile, Ryan Anderson has averaged 17.2 points and 5.2 rebounds per game during that stretch, shooting 56 percent  from the field, 55.3 percent from long-range, and leading all the power forwards with 4.2 3s made per game.

Defensive specialist Luc Mbah a Moute stole the ball an average of 1.6 times and shot 58.3 percent from beyond the arc, placing third among all NBA power forwards over those two weeks.

Swiss center Clint Capela is averaging a double-double for the season, notching a 15.1 points and 10.8 rebounds average during the win streak, and he protects the rim with 1.7 blocks per game.

Trail Blazers

The Rockets are set to go out on a three-game road trip with games against the Los Angeles Lakers, the Utah Jazz and the Portland Trail Blazers.

Portland appears to be the most dangerous hurdle.

The Trail Blazers are currently fifth in the Western Conference with a 13-9 record. The Trail Blazers rank second in the NBA with 47.3 rebounds but are last with 18.1 assists, 26th in field goal percentage (.440) and 27th in three point shots attempted (23.6), all signs of a midrange, jump shot-based offense.

Defensively, Portland places at the top of the league, allowing just 43.3 percent shooting and 99 points per game. Nevertheless, the Blazers rank in the bottom in steals and overall turnovers forced.

Portland’s signature is the two-headed monster at the guard position — Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. The duo combine to average 47 points on a nightly basis. On top of that, Lillard is first among all point guards in getting to the line and converting his free throws, while McCollum shoots 48.7 percent from 3-point range.

It will be interesting to see how this strength vs. strength matchup works out. Houston is a top-two team in protecting the boards, while Portland is top-two in rebounds. Lately most of the rebounding on the Blazers has been handled by Noah Vonleh (team-high 8.1), Jusuf Nurkic (7.7) and Ed Davis (7.8), with the latter coming off the bench to pick up 2.9 offensive boards a night.

The Lakers and the Jazz

The other two games are in Los Angeles against the Lakers and at the Utah Jazz. The Lakers are a two-point shooting team (first in 2-point attempts made a game but last in 3-point percentage) with a high turnover count (16.8), but they’re capable of defending the 3-point line.

They allow only 33 percent from long-range. Players to watch out for are point guard Lonzo Ball (team-high 7.2 assists and seven rebounds a game) and power forward Kyle Kuzma (team-high 16.7 points per game).

The Utah Jazz, on the other hand, are a solid 3-point shooting team (38 percent on 30 attempts per game) but among worst teams in rebounding (27th with 40.8 rebounds). Nevertheless, the Jazz boast one of the most dynamic defenses, which produces 17.5 turnovers, including 10 steals, and allows under 100 points per game.

Players to watch out for are shooting guard Rodney Hood (team-high 17.7 points), point guard Ricky Rubio (5.1 assists 1.7 steals) and small forward Joe Ingles (47.7 percent beyond the arc).

The Rockets went 12-1 in the month of November; expect them to continue winning. They should be able to take care of business in Los Angeles, as the Lakers play on the road the night before their game, and the Rockets should be able to muscle their way to victory against Utah. But it is likely they will drop one against a well-rested Portland team.

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