The Houston Rockets have been on a tear as of late. The team has won seven of its last 10 games but is currently on a two-game losing streak.
To get back on the winning track, Houston will have to defeat a team that has been on a tear of its own. The Atlanta Hawks visit the Toyota Center tonight in search of their fifth straight win, and their tough-as-nails defensive approach could prove difficult for the offense-oriented Rockets to handle.
Even more notable is how the Hawks have continued to play at such a high level without a reliable shooting guard. Joe Johnson was traded to the Brooklyn Nets during the offseason, and that deal left the Hawks without a viable scorer who could take control in crunch time.
Instead of crumbling and immediately heading toward rebuilding mode, Atlanta has played phenomenally. A new commitment to defense has defined the team all season long, and Josh Smith and Al Horford have ruled the roost down south.
As a result, Atlanta ranks seventh in points allowed, at 95 per game.
They will enter Houston out for blood tonight, after losing to Houston at Philips Arena back on November 2. Both teams have come a long way since then, so it will be interesting to see how this battle of fast-paced offense vs. focused defense pans out.
Time: Monday, December 31st, 7:00 p.m. EST
TV: CSN Houston, SportSouth
Records: Atlanta Hawks (19-9) vs. Houston Rockets (16-14)
Betting Line: Not available as of Monday, December 31, 11:04 a.m. EST
Injuries: Anthony Morrow (hip, out), Devin Harris (foot, out), Josh Smith (hip, day-to-day), Carlos Delfino (day-to-day)
Key Storyline: Can Red-Hot Hawks Avenge Early-Season Loss in Houston?
The Rockets and Hawks first faced off at Philips Arena on November 2, and Atlanta lost 109-102. However, the story of the game was not just Houston coming away with a win.
Rather, newly acquired guard James Harden was the highlight of the night, doing it all against Atlanta. The reigning Sixth Man of the Year looked great as a starter and was simply unstoppable. He scored 45 points and pulled down seven rebounds, while point man Jeremy Lin had 21 points, 10 boards and seven assists.
On Atlanta's end, guard Lou Williams led the way with 22 points.
The Hawks will be out for revenge tonight. Houston defeated them at home, and they'll be looking to turn the tables at the Toyota Center.
More importantly, this isn't the second game of the season anymore. We are about to enter the new year, and Atlanta is looking to win its fifth game in a row.
That shouldn't be too difficult, especially since both Harden and the Rockets have drifted down to Earth since November 2. The stage is thus set for the Hawks' iron-taloned defense to go up against the high-octane offense of the Rockets, which should make for a great game overall.
Key Matchup: Al Horford vs. Omer Asik
Both Atlanta and Houston have fine assets in their young centers, but experience should definitely play a factor in their battle tonight, though both are 26 years old.
Al Horford is entering his sixth NBA season and has blossomed into a fine low-post big man. He has great size at 6'10", 250 pounds, and has averaged 15.8 points and 9.7 rebounds while shooting 53 percent from the field.
Horford also has some prowess with his jump shot, which makes him all the more valuable. He can be a good contributor on both sides of the floor, which is what Hawks coach Larry Drew needs in his isolation offense and tough defensive system.
Houston's Omer Asik, on the other hand, is a different type of center. First of all, he is bigger at 7'0", 255 pounds, and his best overall skill is his defense. Currently, he ranks fourth in the NBA with 11.6 rebounds per game.
Asik has also done his fair share of scoring in coach Kevin McHale's offensive system, averaging 10.4 points per contest. However, to say that he is effective in that area is a bit of a stretch.
First off, Asik's low-post game still needs developing. Save for layups and dunks, there's not much he can do with the ball.
On top of that, whenever Asik does get the ball on offense, it's almost as though he doesn't know what to do with it. He thus makes himself prone to turnovers, averaging 2.5 per game.
This is how Horford separates himself from his opponent tonight. He is more confident with the ball as a whole, and his greater experience as a starting center will definitely help him in his battle against Asik.
They may be the same age, but Horford could very well give Asik a lesson in how to play the game tonight. He and his teammates are out to make this game all about defense, which may not bode well for the Turkish seven-footer over the course of the game.
X-Factor: Lou Williams
The Rockets are a high-scoring team, which means that the defense-oriented Hawks need to be able to keep up with them in that area. In order for that to happen, Lou Williams needs to continue to be the offensive spark that he has been all season long.
Through 28 games, the last four of which he has started, Williams has averaged 14.8 points per game and shot a respectable 36 percent from the field. Over the four he has started, he has averaged 17.7 points and has made 44 percent of his threes.
Williams has also shown fine playmaking abilities over his time in the starting lineup, posting 6.5 assists per contest. Against the Indiana Pacers on December 29, he dished out 12 assists on top of his 21 points.
He simply must continue to play this way against the Rockets. One of their best players, James Harden, is a dynamic playmaking guard, and Williams must match him in that style of play despite not being as much of an athlete.
He needs to score points, create plays and, though it isn't his strongest skill, play some defense. Atlanta cannot afford to let Houston's run-and-gun run rampant this time around, and Williams must make sure to keep up with it.
Both Houston and Atlanta may be on a tear, but only one team can win tonight. This time, it's going to be Atlanta.
Houston is definitely playing some better basketball as of late and will keep the game close, but Atlanta's defense will be prepared for the run-and-gun game this time around. Al Horford will control the paint, despite being smaller than Asik, and use his jump shot to keep his opponent off balance.
Josh Smith will come back after missing a game with a hip injury and be an absolute beast on both sides of the floor. He will put up a great number of points, while also making double figures in rebounds and blocking some shots as well.
Lou Williams, of course, will be the ultimate X-factor and spread his offense all around the floor. He will drive the lane, sink threes, use his mid-range jumper and be nearly unstoppable from start to finish.
James Harden and Chandler Parsons will do a good job of keeping Houston in the game, but not even their natural scoring touches will be able to get past Atlanta's defense.
As a result, the Rockets' losing streak will reach three while the Hawks go on to win their fifth straight.
Atlanta Hawks 109, Houston Rockets 102