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NBA game preview: Pelicans look to trip up James Harden and the Rockets in Houston

It will be the first regular season meeting against former teammates Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson since leaving New Orleans.

NBA: Houston Rockets at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The New Orleans Pelicans (9-18) play the Houston Rockets (19-7) Friday night in the Toyota Center. The game is scheduled to tip-off at 7:00 pm local time and can be seen on Fox Sports New Orleans or Root Spots Southwest, or heard over the airwaves on WRNO 99.5FM.

Last night, the Pelicans were victorious over the Indiana Pacers largely because of inspired play during crunch time — an extreme rarity this season. In the final 5 minutes of the game, New Orleans outscored Indiana by a 17-7 margin; Anthony Davis went supernova and both Buddy Hield and Jrue Holiday were excellent in support. This scenario was precisely what many optimistic fans dreamed they’d see on a regular basis prior to the start of the schedule.

Leaving New Orleans in a positive frame of mind could be of some assistance for the Pelicans on their upcoming 3-game road trip. They’re going to need to summon something special because the Rockets have yet to register a loss during the month of December. Yep, Houston is a perfect 8-0, including wins on the road against the Warriors and Thunder.

The Rocket attack obviously starts with James Harden, but this time round he’s a much deadlier version of the multiple All-Star shooting guard. The arrival of Mike D’Antoni has transformed him into a weapon not seen in the NBA in decades. Harden’s per game averages of 27.6 points, a league-leading 11.8 assists and 7.8 rebounds were last matched by Oscar Robertson in the 1960s. Although Russell Westbrook is having a similarly dynamite 2016-17 season, no other players in the history of the league outside of this trio have averaged 25+ points, 10+ assists and 6+ rebounds.

The Pelicans aren’t going to be able to slow Harden down much so they’ve got to focus their attention on limiting a few of his Rocket teammates. Their second and third-leading scorers should be quite familiar to New Orleans fans: Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson. Of the duo, Gordon has really blossomed in his new setting. In fewer minutes and from off the bench, Eric is averaging 17.0 points, 3.6 threes, 2.7 assists and 2.6 rebounds. If he keeps it up and manages to avoid serious injury, you’re likely looking at the next Sixth Man.

What to Watch

Pelicans individual defense on Harden. Last season, it was Jrue Holiday or bust. This year the Pelicans have a lot more individual defenders to throw at Harden. Will it matter? Maybe, maybe not but it’s a guarantee that he’ll be forced to work a lot harder in getting what he wants, when he wants it. And if it’s a close game in the fourth quarter, Harden’s legs may be tired ever so slightly on a particularly important shot or his mind hazy just enough to properly execute a pass. #Win

Three-guard lineups. My hope is Alvin Gentry utilizes three guard lineups a bunch, with Solomon Hill seeing a lot of time at power forward. Although he’s capable, it’s not ideal to have Davis chase Anderson around on the perimeter. Moreover, having Hill, an engaged and somewhat gambling defender, on the perimeter to guard Trevor Ariza is a waste. As the Pelicans displayed last night against the Pacers, matching up against a smaller versatile lineup posted good results on both ends of the floor. The best way to combat Houston’s deadly attack from the outside while protecting the rim and staying formidable on the boards at the same time is to have a lot of quick guards on the floor.

Geaux Pelicans!