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Four Key Matchups To Watch For The Houston Rockets

Rockets Fred VanVleet with Jabari Smith Jr. and Alperen Sengun
Retrieved from Ben DuBose/RocketsWire

Another year, another NBA season for the Houston Rockets. This time, it’s a bit different. With the new In-Season Tournament scheduled to begin this year, the new-look Rockets are eager to showcase their newly signed toys in the offseason along with steady development of their young core. Below are four key Houston matchups to watch this season:

1. Magic vs. Rockets – October 25th

The season opener is always a spectacle, and this time, the Houston Rockets meeting the Orlando Magic promises fireworks. The spotlight will focus on the former Top 3 picks in the 2022 NBA Draft: Jabari Smith Jr. and Paolo Banchero. Banchero, who leapfrogged Smith to become No. 1 pick overall in 2022, had a stellar season in Orlando. Not only did he win Rookie of the Year honors, but he’s also being touted as a potential All-Star this season.

On the other hand, Smith, the third overall pick that surprised many NBA analysts at the time, had a more nuanced trajectory. Starting slow, he felt rather underused and wasn’t incorporated in a rather inconsistent and messy offense. Averaging 12.8 points per game at the beginning with 40.5% from the field and  30.1% from three, Smith found his footing down the stretch with a blistering performance in March, averaging 15.1 points on 46% shooting and 35% from deep.

There’s an underlying narrative here, too. Jabari’s early struggles can be attributed to former Rockets coach Stephen Silas’ system, which didn’t fully utilize his diverse skill set. Instead of him honing his ability to shoot the basketball on all sides of the court with confidence, Jabari was mostly relegated to a stretch wing with more touches going to Jalen Green, Kevin Porter Jr., and Alperen Sengun.

Jabari was audibly vocal about his lackluster rookie performance. In turn, he decided to improve his game in the Summer League and displayed significant leadership with the Rockets new rookie signings and undrafted players. Him, along with teammate Tari Eason completely mopped the floor in both the two games they played in the Summer League. Jabari notably put up 38 points in the first game, including a game-winning buzzer beater. He finished his final game with summer league stats averaging 35.5 points, seven rebounds, and four assists.

Jabari’s resurgence in this year’s Summer League cannot be understated. Not only did he torch opponents, but he also displayed a newfound leadership, guiding plays within his team as a point-forward. In just two games, Jabari showcased his improved skills in size, shot selection, and leadership. Even though he only played two games, his leadership likely translated into the Rockets’ Summer League team success, as they made the Summer League NBA Finals.

This was something General Manager Rafael Stone may have seen in Jabari during his freshman year at Auburn. Under the guidance of new coach Ime Udoka, expectations are sky-high for the Auburn product in his second NBA season. It’s precisely why Jabari’s first game in the 2023-2024 season against Banchero is crucial.

While the Rockets’ new signings in Dillon Brooks and Fred VanVleet are also garnering attention, the Magic have played it subtle. With only notable signings in Joe Ingles and their draft picks in guards Jett Howard and Anthony Black, their focus is clear: develop the young core comprising of Banchero, Franz Wagner, and Wendell Carter Jr. This game against Orlando won’t be an easy one to beat; rather, it will be a testament for Jabari Smith Jr. along with Houston’s new roster construction and coaching staff.

2. Grizzlies vs. Rockets – December 13th and 15th, 2023

Revenge games always have an extra flavor, and for Dillon Brooks, this back-to-back set against the Memphis Grizzlies is circled on his calendar. One game at home; the following game at Memphis.

Brooks, who felt the sting of the Grizzlies’ very public disinterest in re-signing him, will be on a mission. The controversy surrounding his playoff performance and his subsequent handling is still fresh in his memory. Memphis’ GM, Zach Kleiman, dropped enough hints pointing towards Brooks’ behavior, further fueling this narrative.

Aside from this, Brooks isn’t just the only storyline for Houston’s opponent. The Grizzlies will be without their star Ja Morant due to a 25-game suspension. Luckily, Kleiman and his front office took advantage of this issue in the off-season. First, they acquired former Boston Celtic and 2022 Defensive Player Of The Year (DPOY) in Marcus Smart. Second, they signed veteran guard Derrick Rose and extended guard Desmond Bane to a five year deal worth $207 million. Don’t forget Jaren Jackson Jr., who won the following year’s DPOY, and veteran rim protector Steven Adams.

They are still arguably title contenders and are believed to be better this season, especially when Morant gets back on December 19th.Even with Morant out during these games, the Rockets still have their work cut out for them.

The subplot featuring Josh Christopher adds more depth to these matchups. Christopher, having moved from the Rockets to the Grizzlies, shares a strong camaraderie with the Rockets’ young core, especially Jalen Green and Kevin Porter Jr. On-court reunions always pack emotions, and this will be no exception.

3. Rockets vs. Nuggets – November 24th, 2023

Champions carry a target on their back, and for the Denver Nuggets, facing the Rockets won’t be a cakewalk this time around. In fact, it’ll be much different than season’s past. The Rockets first game against Denver will be held as the third game of the NBA’s inaugural In-Season Tournament. Will this raise the stakes between a team with playoff aspirations and a team that just won it all?

Even with the loss of Bruce Brown, the Nuggets are still a force to be reckoned with. With stars like Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr. (MPJ), Aaron Gordon, and arguably the best player in the game, Nikola Jokic, they present a formidable test for the newly-assembled Houston Rockets squad.

The centerpiece of this matchup is the duel between Alperen Sengun and Jokic. While Jokic’s accolades speak volumes, Sengun is carving a name for himself. His recent performances in FIBA games for Turkey have given a glimpse of what’s to come. Sengun’s crafty post moves, ability to run the floor, and expanding shooting range make him a versatile player. The “Baby Jokic” nickname that most NBA players regard him as isn’t just for show, and this game will be a testament to that.

Beyond individual matchups, team dynamics come into play. How will Brooks handle the offensive prowess of MPJ and Gordon? Can Jalen Green consistently rise to the occasion against seasoned wing defenders in Kentavious Caldwell-Pope?

4. Rockets vs. Toronto Raptors – February 2nd, 2024

Ah, the sweet pain of reunions. Fred VanVleet returns to Toronto, but this time wearing Rockets’ colors. Toronto, where VanVleet became an NBA champion and later an All-Star, holds memories at every corner. The Raptors, loyal to their champions, will likely honor him, making this game emotionally charged.

But once the whistle blows, it’s business. The Raptors, led by OG Anunoby, Scottie Barnes, and Pascal Siakam, are no pushovers. Toronto finished as the 10th seed last year and were two games away from winning a playoff spot in the Play-In Tournament. This roster are surely looking to escape mediocrity. It’s easy to predict that each possession will be a battle, with every shot contested. Their off-season addition in Dennis Schroder hopes to provide positive results. His defense on VanVleet will be crucial, pitting experience against experience.

The Rockets, having undergone significant changes, will use this game as a barometer for their progress. With over half the season done, this matchup against the Raptors will be a precursor to the playoff battles that hopefully loom ahead.

A Testament To Houston’s Off-Season

It’s been three straight years of rebuilding and underperformance for the Houston Rockets. The moves this off-season in free agency and the NBA draft amplifies the immediate push to a new era of Rockets basketball. Fans will finally see how well their lottery pick, Amen Thompson, the 4th overall pick, performs as a possible facilitator on the floor. More especially, Rockets guard Cam Whitmore, an initial top ten draft pick picked all the way down to the 20th slot, is eager to prove why other teams passed on selecting him made a mistake.

Out of all the eighty-two matchups, these particular four will dictate where they stand. This includes setting the tone early on, signifying who’s the better draft pick, competing against former teammates, and proving a former team that they made a mistake. These key matchups for the Houston Rockets will be an indication to their chemistry, development as a team, and a possible return to the playoffs.

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