NEW ORLEANS — The Hornets would like to carry over Friday’s impressive performance against Charlotte into Wednesday night’s game at the Houston Rockets.
Two things may be standing in the way. Time and Rockets guard James Harden. The Hornets have not played in five days and didn’t handle the last such stretch well, losing badly at home to Philadelphia on Wednesday. They bounced back against the Bobcats, and coach Monty Williams said the team has had a good week of practice.
Harden is another matter. He was obtained from the Oklahoma City Thunder just before the season started to give the Rockets the elite player they have long coveted. So far, the returns have been good, although Houston is 3-4.
Harden had 37 points and 12 assists in leading the Rockets to an opening-night win against Detroit, and he figures prominently in any strategy on how to beat Houston.
“Well, they added a better ball-handler,” Williams said. “He’s probably their best decision-maker. (In Monday’s loss to Miami), he made every decision down the stretch ... and most two guards don’t do that.”
Williams, of course, appears to have given much thought on how to contain Harden, who is third in the league in scoring at 26 points per game and is averaging 10 free throws per game.
“Do you put a guard on him, do you put a wing on him?” Williams said. “Do you trap him, do you hedge him?”
However, teams of late have proven that Harden isn’t impossible to guard one-on-one. Harden followed up his opening-night performance with 45 points in a victory against Atlanta. Then, in four of the next five games, all losses, he struggled, shooting 23-of-74 (31 percent), mostly against big, physical and aggressive two guards.
It started in a 109-102 loss at Portland against Wesley Matthews, who held Harden to 8-of-24 shooting, even though Harden scored 24 points. But Harden shot only 2-of-15 after beginning the game 6-of-9.
Then Harden was held to 5-of-15 (15 points) by Denver’s Andre Iguodala and 4-of-18 (18 points) by Memphis’ rugged Tony Allen. After a home win against Detroit in which Harden scored 20 points, 10 in a key third quarter, he shot 6-of-17 against Miami but scored 22 points.
The Hornets don’t have that type of defensive guard. And with Austin Rivers, a rookie with an ailing ankle, as the Hornets’ starting shooting guard, Harden may be eyeing a big night.
Rivers, who sprained his right ankle Monday for the third time since training camp, said he just plans to compete against Harden, doing his best defensively and attacking Harden on the other end.
Reserve Roger Mason, known more for providing quick scoring off the bench, has shown he has veteran savvy defensively, too, drawing recent praise from Williams, and rookie swing man Darius Miller also may get a shot.
However, an intriguing option, particularly in the clutch, could be small forward Al-Farouq Aminu. Aminu, the Hornets’ most athletic player, has shown to be a capable defender thus far in the early season.
“He can guard the ball,” Williams said of Aminu’s perimeter defense. “He has long arms, he can move his feet.”
Slowing Harden as a ball-handler also is important. If he can drive and dish for easy baskets by center Omer Asik, who does not score well on his own, that will be a plus for the Rockets. Also, Harden can drive and pull a defender off point guard Jeremy Lin and small forward Chandler Parsons, leaving them wide open for shots.
But the Hornets are quick to remind that defense on a talented offensive player will play its part, but team defense on the whole has been more of the team’s forte.
“You can bother (Harden) and contain him, but you need good team defense, and that’s the staple of our team,” Rivers said. “If we can play good team defense, we can limit some of their other players.”
Hornets scoring also can play a part, particularly from the bench. Against Charlotte, the bench scored 56 points after having games in the 20s and 30s.
Forward Ryan Anderson, with a game-high 25 points, including 5-of-10 shooting on 3-point attempts, and backup point guard Brian Roberts, with 16 points on 7-of-8 shooting and eight assists, led the charge. They can help the bench offset any big night by Harden.
The teams split two preseason games, with each winning at home. Power forward Anthony Davis, who continues to show improvement on offense, didn’t play in the loss at Houston, being held out as a precaution after having a slight injury.
Davis’ can expected to be a big help tonight, particularly with his shot-blocking and intimidation in the post against drives from Harden and Lin.
The Hornets acquired shooting guard Matt Carroll from the Bobcats in exchange for forward Hakim Warrick.
“Hakim has been the ultimate professional while in New Orleans, even while receiving limited (playing) minutes, and we wish him the best in his new opportunity,” Hornets General Manager Dell Demps said.
Carroll, in his ninth season, has shot 38.4 percent on 3-point attempts for his career. He has averaged 6.6 points, 1.9 rebounds and 0.7 assists. With the Portland Trail Blazers, San Antonio Spurs, Dallas Mavericks and Charlotte.
Warrick is in his eighth season and came to the Hornets in the trade that brought the team center Robin Lopez this past summer. Warrick played in one game this season, against Philadelphia, scoring four points in seven minutes.
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