Houston (54-14) are trying to pad their lead atop the Western Conference and secure home-court advantage throughout the playoffs as they have the NBA’s best record.
The Rockets have won 27 of their last 30 overall after a 101-96 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers on Thursday night that clinched the Southwest Division title. It was the second Southwest title for the Rockets since the divisions were realigned in 2004, with the other one coming in 2015.
James Harden scored 23 points, including a key bucket in the final minute that restored a four-point lead. But Houston’s defense has stepped to the forefront in this three-game run, holding opponents to 90.3 points per game and 26.0 percent from 3-point range in that span. That second figure is crucial to Houston’s success as they have made more than twice as many 3-pointers than they have yielded (42-20).
New Orleans (39-29) entered play Friday night in sixth place in the Western Conference but only 1.5 games ahead of the ninth-place Los Angeles Clippers. Their 98-93 loss at San Antonio on Thursday night allowed the Rockets to clinch the division title and was also the Pelicans’ third loss in four games.
Jrue Holiday had 24 points and seven assists while Anthony Davis added 21 points and 14 rebounds before fouling out. The Pelicans struggled offensively in the second half, hitting just 13 of 42 shots, wasting a defensive effort in which they held the Spurs to 11 baskets and 23 percent shooting in the final two quarters.
Three keys to the game
Gordon running hot or cold - Rockets guard Eric Gordon had 23 points off the bench in Thursday night's win, matching a season high with seven 3-pointers. The game before that, he had one point while missing all six of his long-range attempts. And in the game prior to that, Gordon hit six of 11 from deep and scored 26 points.
Since missing three games with an illness, Gordon has been more hot than cold, averaging 18.4 points while shooting 48.6 percent from beyond the arc in his last eight games.
Pelicans mourn passing of owner Tom Benson - A towering civic figure in New Orleans as owner of first the Saints and then the Pelicans, Tom Benson died Thursday at the age of 90. He established his wife Gayle as the heir to both franchises in 2015, which triggered a legal dispute between her and her children.
Coach Alvin Gentry spoke fondly of Benson, who bought the team in 2012 and kept it in New Orleans as the city rebuilt itself following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, telling the Times-Picayune, "I thought he got pure joy out of just being in there. ... He was a really good man that did a lot for the community and did a lot for the teams. ... I'm thankful for everything he did for me. He gave me an opportunity to have one of only 30 (NBA head coaching) jobs in the whole world.
"He was just a man with a huge, huge heart and very much dedicated, not only to the city, but to the entire state of Louisiana."
Rockets hope to have Ryan Anderson available - Houston could have forward Ryan Anderson available, giving them frontcourt depth with perimeter prowess. The 6' 10" forward has missed the last nine games with a hip injury, which has allowed the Rockets to incorporate Joe Johnson into the rotation. Anderson is hitting 38.3 percent of his 3-point shots while averaging 10.0 points and 5.3 rebounds.
Matchup to watch
C Nikola Mirotic vs C Clint Capela - This is an interesting matchup for a few reasons. One is that Mirotic has been struggling offensively of late and has hit 12 of 41 shots (29.3 percent) in his last four games and averaging 7.5 points and 8.8 rebounds in that span.
But the bigger concern is how he will deal defensively with Capela, who is a pogo stick under the basket with 34 double-doubles and such an adept finisher at the rim that Mirotic cannot slide up to help stop penetration on the pick-and-roll by Harden and Chris Paul.
It would not be surprising to see more of Emeka Okafor in this game though it may cause the Pelicans to sacrifice some of their offense since he has reached double figures just three times in 14 games since signing on February 3.
Houston Rockets projected starting lineup
PG - Chris Paul | SG - James Harden | C - Clint Capela | SF - Trevor Ariza | PF - P. J. Tucker
New Orleans Pelicans projected starting lineup
PG - Rajon Rondo | SG - Jrue Holiday | C - Nikola Mirotic | SF - E'Twaun Moore | PF - Anthony Davis
Harden has posted double-doubles in points and assists in the first two matchups, totaling 49 points and 28 assists with a 4.00 assist-to-turnover ratio. He has recorded seven or more assists in eight straight matchups, averaging 30.5 points, 12.3 assists, 8.1 rebounds and 2.5 steals in that span.
In 30 lifetime games against the Pelicans, Harden has averaged 21.7 points, 6.5 assists and 4.6 rebounds but shot only 30.4 percent from 3-point range.
Capela ran wild in the first game between the teams, making 13 of 14 shots and totaling 28 points, eight rebounds and five blocks in a 130-123 win December 11. He was plagued by foul trouble in the second contest, a 115-113 Pelicans victory January 26 in which he finished with eight points and ten boards. Capela has averaged 9.7 points, 7.5 rebounds and 1.9 blocks in ten career matchups with the Pelicans.
Davis has recorded double-doubles in the last 12 games he has finished, averaging 34.7 points, 14.2 rebounds and 3.9 blocks while shooting 51.3 percent. He had 17 points and five rebounds when he injured his ankle March 7, which caused him to miss a game.
He missed the first meeting between the teams with a sore groin but helped the Pelicans win in January with 27 points, 11 rebounds, five assists and five blocks. Davis has recorded double-doubles in the last three matchups and has eight in 19 lifetime games versus the Rockets, averaging 19.4 points, 9.6 rebounds and 2.0 blocks.
Holiday has enjoyed playing the Rockets this season, lighting them up for 58 points while shooting a scorching 72.7 percent (24 for 33). He had a season-high 37 in the December loss and added five assists and four steals. The guard has averaged 15.8 points and 6.1 assists in 19 lifetime matchups with the Rockets, reaching 30 points on three occasions and shooting 50.6 percent overall.
The Rockets are seven-point favorites, with the line moving one-half point in their direction since it opened. While they are 4-9 against the spread in their last 13 trips to the "Big Easy," Houston have covered in eight of their last nine on the road and eight of their last 11 overall.
Houston also have covered in five of their last seven matchups against division rivals and are 7-1 versus the number in their last eight against conference foes. The Rockets are also an impressive 9-1 against the number in their last ten road games versus teams with a winning home record.
New Orleans have failed to cover in their last four games and are 1-4 against the spread in their last five at home. The Pelicans, though, have covered in six of their last eight overall and are 22-8 versus the number in their last 30 home games against teams with a winning percentage above .600 on the road.
The over/under has also inched one-half point, increasing to 227.5. While the over has gone 9-3 in New Orleans' last 12 overall and 20-8 in their last 28 against conference foes, the under has been trending for Houston. It has hit five times in their last six road games and posted a 20-8 mark in their last 28 games overall.
With the first goal of three achieved in winning a division title, the Houston Rockets have the look and sound of a team that knows they still have plenty of work left. There is still the top seed in the conference and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs, but still, one step at a time.
This game offers intrigue as a potential first-round playoff matchup. It is also the first time the teams are playing each other since the Pelicans lost DeMarcus Cousins to a season-ending Achilles injury, which means Gentry will need to make adjustments on the fly on both ends of the court, especially defensively since both Cousins and Davis neutralized some of Houston's pick-and-roll game because of the space they occupied in the paint.
New Orleans, though, must expand their offensive game beyond hoping Davis scores 35 points. Holiday has come on of late, and with two excellent games versus the Rockets to his credit this season must continue to hunt his shot. It also means Mirotic has to end his funk and hit from the perimeter. If he can drag Capela out of the lane, it allows Davis to operate in single coverage in the low post and let both Holiday and Rajon Rondo attack the rim.
These teams will meet again next Saturday in Houston, so the tinkering that goes on in this game could be a precursor to more changes there. Houston are just operating too well to see them get stopped here and will emerge with a 116-108 victory.
The game will be televised locally on AT&T SportsNet - Southwest and Fox Sports New Orleans. Tip-off time is 7 pm EDT.
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