The Charlotte Hornets have won six games in a row. They've won 14 of their last 17 games. They're eight games over .500 for the first time since 2001. They just snagged their third tie-breaker against an Eastern Conference rival. No matter how you cut it, the Hornets are on fire. What a time to be alive.
Tonight, however, they play their toughest opponent in quite some time — the Houston Rockets. The Rockets, led by James Harden, Dwight Howard, and Microsoft Excel spreadsheets, sit in the seventh seed in the Western Conference. Don't get it twisted, though; the Rockets are not only good, they're very good.
The Rockets have had identity issues all season. On paper, they look fantastic. Unfortunately, their pieces aren't meshing, and they're not particularly good at any one thing aside from attempting 3-pointers and getting Harden to the free throw line. It's no surprise, then, that for much of the season they've been bottom-10 in defense and top-10 in offense.
But lately, they've been a great defensive team and relatively poor offensively. Over their last five games, they're third in defensive rating and 21st in offensive rating. They're 4-1 over that stretch, too. Aside from Harden, Howard, and Corey Brewer, the Rockets are struggling to score at an efficient rate.
Harden's usage has skyrocketed in an attempt to mitigate the team's failing offense. His usage percentage is 37.1 percent over the Rockets' last five games, and his averages of 35.2 points, 6.8 rebounds, 8.1 assists, 5.6 turnovers and 15.8 free throw attempts per game really put his dominance into perspective. Early in the season, there were concerns the Rockets were losing because of Harden. Now, they're winning because of him, and anyone who tells you differently doesn't know what they're talking about.
Harden is a tricky matchup for the Hornets' wings. Courtney Lee is a quick and smart defender, but he's not strong enough to stop Harden from getting to the basket. Nicolas Batum's length could present problems for Harden, but he's not quick enough to stop him from getting to the basket with a head of steam. The same is true for Jeremy Lamb, whose long arms can make it difficult for Harden to get clean looks at the basket, but is ultimately not strong nor quick enough to handle him for extended periods of time.
The Rockets won last time the Hornets played them, 102-95.
Okay, hold on. I need to collect myself.
The last time these two teams played, there was zero tempo and nothing worth cheering for. It was an excruciatingly boring game to watch, thanks to a total of 71 free throw attempts and 30 turnovers between the two teams. Both teams shot worse than 30 percent from behind the arc, too, and for whatever reason, P.J. Hairston decided to attempt nine of those 3-pointers. He made two, by the way. It was an ugly game no matter how you look at it. It had no redeeming value whatsoever.
If tonight's game is anything like the last one, be prepared to make frequent beer runs and take bathroom breaks often.
This game is certainly winnable for the Hornets. If they happen to pull it off, there's a legitimate chance they'll extend their winning streak to 10 or more games, too. Their real test comes on Wednesday against the San Antonio Spurs, the NBA's second best team, with four games against good-but-not-great teams before then.
Tip off is at 7 p.m.