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Game Preview: New Orleans Pelicans vs Houston Rockets

The Pelicans need to get back on the right track in order to remain alive in the playoff race.

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The rigors of the regular season are finally catching up to the New Orleans Pelicans.

The loss to the Clippers pushed the Pelicans back to three games (which after tonight is now 3 1/2 games) behind the Oklahoma City Thunder for the eighth and final spot in the playoffs. Ryan Anderson should be closer and closer to returning for the team’s final 10 games of the season. Anthony Davis is back, but unfortunately, Jrue remains without a timetable even though he's being seen shooting around in practices. At this point, I doubt he will return for any of the remaining games of this season. Hopefully I’m wrong.

The hits continue to come as the Houston Rockets and a returning Dwight Howard travel to the Smoothie King Center tomorrow evening; however, it does sound like Patrick Beverley is out indefinitely. Check out the Rockets perspective here: The Dream Shake.

Stats of Note

Offensively, the Rockets are outside the top ten in offensive efficiency, due to the Dwight Howard injury. James Harden is one of the best offensive weapons in the league with his ability to remain efficient, as well as get to the free throw line, 10.1 per game, which leads the league. Before the injury, Howard averaged 16.3 points per game on 57 percent shooting.

The surrounding talent took a step back from last year’s core. Terrance Jones has played only 25 games this past season, but has taken a step forward at 52 percent shooting. After coming from Washington, Trevor Ariza’s three point shooting has predictably regressed (33 percent this season) and the combination of Josh Smith and Donatas Motiejunas completes a rather fascinating offense for Houston. In theory, the Rockets have two excellent players, but I just worry about the supporting cast heading into the playoffs.

On the other end, this team touts the fourth best defense in the league. Despite Harden’s defensive issues (he’s been better this season, not a huge, highlight reel liability like last year), the Rockets have improved defensively, even in Howard's absence. Trevor Ariza and Patrick Beverley are two great on-ball defenders, Terrance Jones is surprisingly a good interior defender and Josh Smith, after being removed from Detroit, has found an acceptable role in Houston.

The Rockets are a really good team, and if Dwight can get back into the groove of things and ramp it up heading into the postseason, the Rockets are going to be interesting to watch. Personally, a healthy Dwight would make it a big four for me in the Western Conference, behind Golden State, Memphis and San Antonio in term of "contenders".

Keys to Victory

Mid-range jumpers - The Rockets avoid taking mid-range jumpers. Moreyball. Playing good defense and forcing mid-range jumpers from the non-Harden wings (Ariza, Beverley, Terry, etc)  is a better shot than a three from them. Disrupting the Houston offense and forcing bad shots is a good way to stop them.

Anthony Davis - Feed the man. Force the action and let him guide you to victory. Davis had been on a tear recently, missed a couple games, then put up 26 points, 15 rebounds and six assists against the Clippers. For me, allow Davis to work against Houston’s myriad of big man and force them to put Jones or Donatas against him on the outside.

Force turnovers - The Rockets have the third highest turnover percentage behind the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers. Harden is excellent at creating offense, but having the ball in his hands most of the time has also resulted in a number of turnovers, 4.0 per game. Howard averages 3.1 per game and the Pelicans should look to exploit that.

With the Thunder's sizable lead and Russell Westbrook not looking to slow down from his triple-double binges, the remaining games for the Pelicans are all vital. The Suns have somehow snuck in through the back door and leaped over the Pelicans for the ninth spot. The Pelicans need to win tomorrow. Geaux Pels!

Who - Pelicans vs. Rockets

Where - Smoothie King Center

When - March 25th, 2015 8:00 est/7:00 cst

How to Watch - League pass or Fox Sports Net