The New Orleans Pelicans are feeling good about themselves after a 2-1 home stand in which the only loss was in overtime to the Golden State Warriors, who have the top record in the NBA.
And, they Pelicans (12-12) head out to play the Houston Rockets (18-5) on Thursday at Toyota Center after having increased their scoring in recent games. In their past six, the Pelicans have averaged 111.6 points, as they’ve shown an ability to keep pace with such capable offensive teams as the Dallas Mavericks, Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors.
“You look at the guys we have on the floor,” Coach Monty Williams said. “Ryan (Anderson) has been shooting the ball better, (Anthony Davis) has been AD, Tyreke (Evans) has been pretty good.
“I don’t want to make assessments about why we are scoring. I’m just glad we are.”
The Pelicans look to take that to Houston in a Southwest Division game that is a big opportunity. New Orleans, despite its .500 record, is in the eighth playoff spot, a good development although it is early in the season. The Rockets are third in the Western Conference race and second in the Southwest, where all five teams, including the last-place Pelicans, are in playoff spots thus far.
The game features intriguing matchups at center between the Pelicans’ Omer Asik and Houston’s Dwight Howard. Asik was a starter for the Rockets in the 2012-13 season, averaging double figures in scoring and rebounding. Howard signed with Houston as a free agent before last season, relegating Asik to the bench, a development that made him available to the Pelicans.
However, another matchup that could have an even bigger impact on the game involves Pelicans shooting guard Tyreke Evans against the Rockets’ James Harden, the NBA’s leading scorer at 26.3 points per game. He was the Western Conference’s Player of the Week for the period ending Sunday.
It was due in large part to Harden’s play that the Rockets survived a stretch of 11 games without Howard, who had a strained right knee. Howard returned on Saturday against Denver. Led by Harden, Houston went 8-3 in those games.
Called “a professional scorer” by Williams, Harden is a very consistent outside shooter with great range who is perhaps the best in the league at driving to the basket. Heading into Wednesday game at Denver, he had league-high nine games of more than 10 free throws made.
“I just have to stay in from of him,” Evans said. “It’s tough. He draws fouls. We have to go over our principles, what we worked on (in practice Wednesday) and make him finish over the (Pelicans’ big men).
“But you know he’s going to put up a lot of shots.”
Houston’s scheme fits Harden to a “T.” Other than Harden, the Rockets have two other good 3-point shooters in point guard Patrick Beverly and small forward Trevor Ariza, a former member of the New Orleans Pelicans under Williams. That opens lanes for Harden’s difficult-to-stop drives. Houston leads the NBA in 3-pointers made average at 11.9 per game.
A key to victory for the Pelicans will be whether they can continue their recent scoring. With Howard, Ariza and Beverly and with Harden being better than given credit, according to Williams, the Rockets are one of the NBA’s better defensive teams.
Another key will be how well the Pelicans keep the Rockets off the offensive glass. Houston is third in the league in offensive rebounding at 12.5 per game.
That was a problem for the Pelicans in Tuesday night’s win over Utah. With the Jazz’s guards and small forward Gordon Hawyard driving to the basket, it put center Enes Kanter and power forward Rudy Gorbert in position to get tip-ins. Utah had 18 offensive rebounds, scored 25 second-chance points and had 68 points in the lane. Kanter and Gobert combined for 11 offensive rebounds.
However, like Harden, Evans also drives well to the basket. He had back-to-back games of 34 and 31 points, followed by Tuesday’s 19 points and six assists, including two in the last three minutes to Davis that helped pull out the victory.
Evans said the key has been the Pelicans’ pace on offense.
“When we push the ball and Ryan’s getting 3s, it opens things for everybody else,” he said. “I’m getting layups, AD is getting mid-range shots. It just opens everything up, and when we’re playing like that, playing together, that’s when we’re having fun.”
NOTES: New Orleans is 4-9 in road games, 4-6 in the Western Conference and 1-2 vs. division foes. The Pelicans are 1-4 in their past five road games. … In the Pelicans’ past three games, Anderson has shot 50.0 percent on 3-point attempts (16-of-32). … Houston is 9-3 at home but 9-2 on the road heading into Wednesday night. … During Howard’s absence, 7-foot starting power forward
Donatas Motiejunas averaged 16.2 points. His career average is 6.4 ppg.