MEMPHIS, Tennessee — The Rockets made great strides in their last long home run of the season They won three of six games. They were more competitive when the Toyota Center stay ended than when it started.
Things will get tougher when they head out of town for the last big road trip, a five-game stretch Rockets coach Stephen Silas has called “a beast,” starting Wednesday with the first of two games against the Grizzlies.
The Grizzlies are second in the Western Conference and are on a three-game hitting streak in the third game of their four home games. Memphis head coach Taylor Jenkins said star guard Ja Morant will be allowed to return following his eight-game ban and Monday’s win against the Mavericks that he missed on his way back.
Although the Rockets have shown improvement at home, they have lost 15 of their last 17 games on the road. The Grizzlies have the best home run record in the NBA, 30-5.
Here are five things to look out for when the Rockets play the Grizzlies:
Is back. Probably.
There will be huge attention on a game that pits a team chasing first place in the Western Conference against a team that dropped to bottom with back-to-back losses on Sunday and Monday.
This is due to Ja Morant likely returning with the Grizzlies hoping he would be considered ready to play for the first time since he posted a video of what appeared to him showing a gun in a club on social media.
The Grizzlies went 6-3 in games Morant lost with Tyus Jones, the league leader in assists to turnover ratio in each of the last five seasons, completing the point. They have gone 10-8 in the games Morant has gone out in this season. Morant, however, takes the Grizzlies to another level, as the Rockets experienced firsthand in their first home game of the season.
Morant scored a season-high 49 points in that game, three fewer than in his career, on a season-high 17-of-26 shooting, including 5-of-6 from 3-point range. He is sixth in the NBA in assists per game (8.2), ninth in scoring (27.1).
Rockets to the Grizzlies
When: 7pm WednesdayWhere: FedEx Forum; Memphis, Tennessee.television/radio: AT&T SportsNet Southwest, 790 AMRecord: Rockets 18-54, Grizzlies 44-27
Newcomers on the rise
When the Rockets met the Grizzlies in the second game of the season, rookie forwards Tari Eason and Jabari Smith Jr. combined for 18 points and eight rebounds. Also in the second meeting three weeks ago, they combined for 14 points and 13 rebounds.
They showed steady improvement over the next several weeks and, on Monday, became the first Rockets rookies since Ralph Sampson and Rodney McCray in the 1983-84 season to both hit double rebounding points in the same game.
Smith had 17 points and 11 rebounds for his fourth double-double in his last seven games and his 12th overall this season. Eason matched his career high with 21 points, while adding 12 rebounds and four steals.
The Grizzlies matchup, however, will be a tough test, even with Clarke and Dillon Brooks out, cutting the depth of Memphis’ frontcourt. Jaren Jackson Jr. is up for Defensive Player of the Year. He didn’t play in the first game against the Rockets this season, but blocked five shots March 1 at the Toyota Center as Smith went 3-of-14, scoring 10 points in 34½ minutes.
The Rockets will face the best defenses in the league in each of the next three games. It is unclear which team will be better.
The Grizzlies are in second place, trailing the Cavaliers by four-tenths of a point allowed per 100 possessions. They are third in opposing field goal percentage.
The Rockets scored relatively easily in the first game, amassing 122 points on 47.3% shooting, 45.7% on 3-pointers. Jalen Green had 33 of 13 of 21 shooting. Alperen Sengun hit 23, making 9 of 13 shots. But it was with Jackson and Brooks that they lost the game.
In the second game, the Rockets scored 99 points on 40% shooting, including 32.4% 3-point shooting, and that included a 31-point fourth quarter after the Grizzlies built a secure 28-point lead. .
The Rockets made just 41.4% of their shooting in straight losses topping the Pelicans and Warriors earlier in the week after shooting 50% in the previous eight games. The Rockets had 108 points on Monday and had just two wins this season while scoring under 110 points.
In the painted area (as former Grizzlies coach Hubie Brown calls it)
The Grizzlies score the most points in the paint in the NBA (58.3). The Rockets have scored the most in the paint since the All-Star break, 60.6. But the Rockets need those points to make up for their lack of 3-point shooting and in the game three weeks ago, the Grizzlies blocked the lane.
The Rockets had 46 paint points against the Grizzlies, which allows for the fourth-fewest paint points in the league. The Rockets got in, but couldn’t convert enough, hitting 23 of 50 shots in the paint.
The next man?
Even if Morant returns as expected, the Grizzlies will be shorthanded. In addition to playing without Steven Adams and Brandon Clarke, who have been sidelined with injuries, forward Dillon Brooks picked up his 18th technical foul of the season on Monday for provoking the Mavericks bench, and is suspended for the second time this season for excessive technical fouls.
In two games against the Rockets, Brooks averaged 16 points on 50% of his shots, including 50% on his 3-pointers.
Sengun, who missed Monday’s game with illness, was not in the injury-to-state report on Tuesday, but forward Jae’Sean Tate is out with sore left knee.