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Preview: Rockets at Nets

Setting the scene for Houston's matchup with the Brooklyn Nets

BROOKLYN - Setting the scene for Houston’s matchup with the Brooklyn Nets:

The Basics:

Houston Rockets (49-23) at Brooklyn Nets (39-33)

Point Differential:

Brooklyn: -0.5 (NBA rank: 16th)

Houston: +5.1 (NBA rank: 5th)

Offensive Rating (points per 100 possessions):

Brooklyn: 104.4 (14th)

Houston: 108.5 (T-4th)

Defensive Rating (points allowed per 100 possessions):

Brooklyn: 104.2 (15th)

Houston: 102.4 (10th)

Pace (number of possessions per 48 minutes):

Brooklyn: 93.81 (25th)

Houston: 98.38 (5th)

Four Factors:

Shooting – Effective field goal percentage (eFG% is a field goal percentage that’s adjusted for made 3-pointers being 1.5 times more valuable than a 2-point shot):

Brooklyn: 51.1% (10th)

Houston: 53.4% (3rd)

Turnovers – Turnover ratio (the number of turnovers a team averages per 100 possessions):

Brooklyn: 15.2 (16th)

Houston: 16.7 (30th)

Rebounding – Rebound percentage (the percentage of total rebounds obtained)

Brooklyn: 47.1% (29th); offensive rebound rate: 21.9% (26th); defensive rebound rate: 72.2% (28th)

Houston: 52.1% (T-3rd); offensive rebound rate: 27.7% (5th); defensive rebound rate: 73.4% (23rd)

Free Throws – Free throw rate (the rate at which a team goes to the line relative to the number of field goals it attempts):

Brooklyn: .315 (5th)

Houston: .389 (1st)

Back on November 29, the Rockets won their 14th consecutive game against the Nets franchise, building a 26-point halftime lead before cruising to the finish line with a wire-to-wire, 114-95 victory.

Now take everything you know and remember about that contest and bury it into the deepest, darkest recesses of your mind. It doesn’t matter. It’s irrelevant. Because that Nets team looks and plays nothing like the squad the Rockets will be facing this evening.

That late November night, Brooklyn could only manage to put 17 points on the board in the first quarter. Paul Pierce, meanwhile, has nearly averaged that many points in the opening period all by himself during the Nets’ last two games. Indeed, the former Celtic’s renaissance has played a pivotal role in the Nets’ ability to turn their season around, as has the return to health of point guard Deron Williams, who did not play against Houston the last time these two teams met.

But Brooklyn’s resurgence goes far beyond the mere return or return to form of any one player; it has instead been much more about the way in which those pieces have been deployed and utilized. After the Nets again lost center Brook Lopez to a season-ending foot injury, Brooklyn altered its approach, shifting to a bizarro small-ball look that frequently features two points guards playing together in the backcourt – though one of them, we’ll get to him a bit later, loves to do damage in the post – alongside a trio of ever-shifting wings and forwards who all bring different talents to the table.

The common thread among the vast majority of those shape-shifting lineups, however: shooting and spacing galore. No team in the NBA has made the 3-pointer a staple of its offensive diet to the degree that the Nets have in 2014; since the calendar flipped and Brooklyn’s small-ball routine began in earnest, a whopping 32.8 percent of the Nets’ field goal attempts have come from beyond the arc. And why not? With Pierce flourishing as a stretch-four and Joe Johnson, Mirza Teletovic and Marcus Thornton bombing away as well, the Nets have no shortage of shooters who can make opposing defenses pay if they get lost while attempting to navigate their way through one of the many cross-matches Brooklyn creates. 

The end result has been nothing short of a stunning turnaround. Once the butt of many a joke due to its ignominious opening two months, Brooklyn is now breeding terror in its fellow Eastern Conference foes thanks to the remarkable 29-12 mark it has posted thus far in 2014; a record, by the way, that represents the fourth-best winning percentage in the league during that time, right behind the mark posted by the Houston Rockets. And lest you think that record is primarily the result of playing against the watered down East, bear in mind that not only have the Nets beaten two-time defending champion Miami in all three meetings this season, but Brooklyn also boasts a very respectable 10-7 mark against the top nine teams in the Western Conference, having defeated every one of those clubs at least once save for Portland and Houston.

All of which is a very long-winded way of saying the Rockets will have their hands full tonight in their quest to beat Brooklyn for a 15th consecutive time. These Nets are a different animal and one that has been nothing short of lethal at home where they have won 13 in a row. Houston is more than capable of venturing into the Barclays Center and emerging victorious, of course. But this much is certain: there is nothing to be gleaned from the Rockets’ November victory over the Nets that will help them in their preparation for tonight.

Know Thy Enemy

- So it turns out that an All-Star caliber player is actually rather crucial to a team’s fortunes. Who knew? Deron Williams’ return to good health has been a massive boon for Brooklyn as the 29-year-old is the club’s clear leader in net rating and plus/minus this season. Since 2014 rolled around, the Nets boast an offense that’s produced very near a top-5 rate whenever Williams has been on the floor. When he sits, however, their efficiency rating drops to a Pacers-esque, bottom-10 level.

Williams has gotten better as the season has gone on, serving as the fountainhead of Brooklyn’s offense with his dynamic ability to unleash destruction via pick-and-rolls, isos and spot-up shooting. He’s been especially destructive in the latter category; Synergy places Williams in the league’s 96th percentile as a spot-up shooter – no surprise given that the University of Illinois product has drained nearly 46 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s this season.

- Brooklyn’s “other” starting point guard, meanwhile, has done plenty of damage in his own right. Shaun Livingston, as is his wont, quietly wreaks havoc in myriad ways. The 28-year-old is so very smart and knows how to take full advantage of his rather unique skill set. Unlike many of his teammates, Livingston is no floor spacer, but that hasn’t prevented him from feasting upon the point guard staples of pick-and-rolls and isolations.

Where Livingston is perhaps most dangerous, however, is when he takes his wiry 6-7 frame into the post. From that particular piece of real estate, Livingston can take full advantage of his size advantage over small points while also maximizing the full breadth of his bountiful basketball IQ. As both a scorer and facilitator, Livingston is a certified threat from the post and elbows, and the numbers back that up as well: Synergy states he has hit nearly 59 percent of his 51 shots derived from post-ups, and when passing is added to the mix Livingston’s post-up play is efficient enough to place him in the league’s 95th percentile in that category.

- Marcus Thornton is yet another player who seems to have found new life in Brooklyn. The 26-year-old gunner reached the 20-point plateau a total of three times during his 46 games with the Kings this season, but has already done so on four separate occasions in just 17 games with the Nets. They key for Thornton has been the rediscovery of his shooting stroke; after knocking down less than 32 percent of his 3s in Sacramento, Thornton has hit 38 percent from downtown since becoming part of Brooklyn’s bomb squad.

- A couple shot location fun facts for viewing pleasure: Pay close attention to the left corner when Brooklyn has the ball – the Nets are shooting a scorching 43 percent from that spot this season. Brooklyn, meanwhile, sits dead last in the league in shot attempts per game from the restricted area (interestingly, tomorrow’s opponent, Toronto, is 29th in that category). Not surprisingly, then, the Nets reside among the NBA’s bottom-5 in terms of pace-adjusted paint points scored per game.

- The Nets aren’t typically associated with clubs like the Heat and Clippers who prey upon turnovers, but Brooklyn has been nearly as good as those two teams in terms of converting those miscues into points at the other end. Coming into tonight’s contest, the Nets are No. 3 in the league in pace-adjusted points scored off of turnovers.

- Brooklyn’s defense has made major strides since the start of the season. Where once the Nets hemorrhaged points at an alarming rate, they have since shored things up and performed like a top-10 unit in 2014. They’re still vulnerable in certain areas, however, most particularly in their ability to defend spot-ups and pick-and-rolls where Synergy respectively ranks them 28th and 24th in the league.

Brooklyn also has been unable to solve its rebounding woes. For all of the progress the Nets have made since the start of the new calendar year, their glass work still remains among the worst in the NBA. But as bad as Brooklyn has been in that area, it has somewhat stunningly managed to reside within the league’s top-10 in terms of fewest pace-adjusted second chance points conceded per contest.

In the spotlight

Jeremy Lin did not mince words Saturday night. He made no secret of his dissatisfaction with his play in the wake of Houston’s loss to the Clippers. With both Pat Beverley and Dwight Howard out due to injuries, Lin knows his team needs him more than ever. So perhaps a return to New York will prove to be just what the shot doctor ordered. In his three previous outings in the Big Apple area, J-Lin has averaged more than 17 points per game. Given Houston’s injury issues and the explosive nature of Brooklyn’s offense, that kind of production could be sorely needed if the Rockets are to bring an end to the Nets’ recent home court dominance tonight.

Injury Update

Terrence Jones (flu-like symptoms) is a game-time decision. Dwight Howard (ankle), Patrick Beverley (knee) and Greg Smith (knee) are out.

All stats courtesy of NBA.com except where otherwise noted.