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Houston Rockets at Miami HEAT Game Preview

The Miami HEAT host the Houston Rockets Thursday night at AmericanAirlines Arena. Get your tickets now! Tip-off is set for 8:00 PM, and television coverage is on TNT. You can also listen to the action live on 790 The Ticket.

1: How will Miami move forward without Goran Dragić, who underwent knee surgery Wednesday?

Couper Moorhead: What they have been doing, essentially. While Justise Winslow has, for the most part, assumed starting point guard duties, this team will be playmaking by committee. That means Winslow will get plenty of touches, as will Josh Richardson, Rodney McGruder and Tyler Johnson along the perimeter (naturally Dwyane Wade will get his usually workload), while James Johnson, Bam Adebayo and Kelly Olynyk will be helping to spur downhill actions with dribble handoffs on the perimeter. You feel for Dragić and hope he can return to the court as soon as possible, but Miami will have to approach this as they have every injury with their next-man up approach. The only good news here is that with Dragić having missed time already the HEAT have had time to figure things out, so at least this shouldn’t be too much of a shock to the system like a sudden in-game injury would be.

Joe Beguiristain: While things will be tough with Goran Dragić out for an extended period of time, the HEAT have relied on their numerous playmakers to get the job done of late. In fact, Miami has recorded a 63.6 assist percentage over its past nine games thanks in large part to Dwyane Wade, Josh Richardson, Justise Winslow and Tyler Johnson among others.

In terms of Thursday night though, Winslow is questionable due to right ankle pain, while Tyler Johnson is probable with a migraine headache. If Winslow is out, expect TJ to start. And if both are out, we’ll likely see Wayne Ellington get the nod.

Regardless of who starts, almost every player on the roster can handle the ball in some form or fashion, including Bam Adebayo and Kelly Olynyk. And even though the HEAT haven’t had as much success scoring off handoffs as they did last year, they still average 31.5 handoffs per 100 possessions and utilize them to keep their offense moving.

Danuel House Jr.2: How have the Houston Rockets changed this season?

Couper: On paper the Rockets look very similar to last year. They still have James Harden and Chris Paul creating, they still have Clint Capela protecting the rim, they still have P.J. Tucker filling the do-it-all role player slot and they still have Eric Gordon as one of the most ignitable bench scoring options in the league (though he has been starting lately). Knowing that, it seems like the team that won 66 games last season. But it’s around the edges where things have changed. Gone are Trevor Ariza and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute from what was a Top 10 defense last season, with the Rockets now sitting No. 27 on that same end. Carmelo Anthony was brought in, but he played 10 games and is no longer with the team. Numerous other changes have been made to the rotation, with some players in and out of it and others joining the team mid-season. Until recently, it seemed those changes, along with some players dealing with injuries and suspensions, were partly the cause for Houston lingering below .500, but they’ve since climbed back above the line and are back to having a Top 5 offense.

The core of the team is the same but everything else has changed around it.

Joe: As Coup mentioned above, the Rockets’ core hasn’t really changed all that much. The only new addition getting regular rotation minutes at the moment is Danuel House Jr., whom the team called up from its G League affiliate in late November. And with James Ennis currently nursing a right hamstring strain, House Jr. has taken advantage of more playing time of late. The former Sun has made such a big impact over the past 12 games that Houston is outscoring opponents by 13.9 points per 100 possessions with House Jr. on the floor. And while that sample size is small and the 25-year-old averages only 20.8 minutes per game, that net rating is still solid.

Speaking of impressive, the Rockets’ unequivocal leader in James Harden has been on an absolute tear of late. Once again, the 29-year-old leads the league in scoring at 31.6 points per game and is coming off a 35-point, nine-assist effort against the Wizards on Wednesday. Oh yeah, he also has six 40-plus point games to his credit this season. Six.

That’s quite impressive.

3: What unique challenges will this Rockets offense present Thursday night?

Couper: You can approach Houston a few different ways. You can play them with something approaching traditional pick-and-roll defense, but conventional wisdom has generally been that the Rockets spread you out too far to rely on help defenders when Harden or Paul is playing pick-and-roll with Capela. That’s why so many teams opted to simply switch along the perimeter to try and flatten Houston out – just as Houston can do to so many teams themselves, most notably with their heavy switching against Golden State in the postseason – and the Rockets will certainly oblige by taking those switches, slowing the game down and attacking in isolation. The problem there is that Houston has two of the most elite isolation players in the league, though Paul has had a bit of a down year so far having dealt with some injuries. Last year Miami tried a little bit of both coverages and both Harden and Paul hit huge step-back threes on those isolations. There is no perfect answer beyond probably mixing up your coverages and, with whatever you choose, doing it to the absolute best of your ability.

It will be interesting to see if Miami goes back to any zone Thursday night. That may seem like lunacy against the Rockets, but note that they’re only shooting 34.5 percent from deep despite all the attempts they get up and given the changes to their bench, a zone against Houston’s bench units that haven’t seen a lot of time together may be able to throw them off rhythm and slow the game down if used in the right spots.

Joe: Well, Houston just set an NBA record on Wednesday with 26 made threes against Washington, so it would behoove the HEAT to defend the three-point line. And even though the Wizards’ perimeter defense is one of the worst in the league and the Rockets haven’t shot the ball particularly well from deep as a whole this season, the fact of the matter is no team takes more 3-pointers than Houston.

With highly-capable shooters in Harden, Eric Gordon, Chris Paul, Gerald Green and P.J. Tucker, the Rockets have limitless firepower. Then when you consider Harden and CP3’s ability to attack the bucket (both guys are ranked in the top 15 in drives per game), you realize why Houston has one of the best offenses in the NBA.

As you can see, the HEAT will definitely have their hands full on Thursday, but they’ve had a few days to prepare and understand the task at hand.

Rockets at HEAT Head To Head

Game Notes:

  • The HEAT have won two straight and are 13-16, while the Rockets have won five straight and enter the contest at 16-14.
  • Seven Miami players average double-figures in scoring.
  • James Harden leads Houston with 31.6 points per game.
  • Justise Winslow (Right Ankle Pain) is questionable and Tyler Johnson (Migraine Headache) is probable, while Goran Dragić (Right Knee Surgery), Dion Waiters (Left Ankle) and Duncan Robinson (Sioux Falls Assignment) remain out.

Efficiencies (Rank):

  • HEAT Offense: 105.6 (25)
  • HEAT Defense: 106.4 (9)
  • Rockets Offense: 112.2 (5)
  • Rockets Defense: 111.6 (27)

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