Mar 17, 2023; Houston, Texas, USA; Houston Rockets forward Jae'Sean Tate (8) is fouled by New Orleans Pelicans guard CJ McCollum (3) in the fourth quarter at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

PREVIEW: Pelicans at Rockets- March 19

The Rockets go for their fourth straight win when they host the New Orleans Pelicans in the rematch of Friday’s thrilling win at Toyota Center. Jabari Smith Jr. drained a 3-pointer with 0.4 seconds left on the clock to send the Rockets to their first three-game winning streak of the season. Sunday’s game is the fifth game of a six-game homestand and the first of a back-to-back that will conclude with the Golden State Warriors visiting on Monday.

Eye on the Pelicans

Record: 33-37 (12th in Western Conference)

Offensive rating (rank): 113.1 (21st)

Defensive rating (rank): 112.7 (9th)

The Pelicans improved to 24-14 when they beat the Rockets 119-108 on Jan. 4, and not only did it seem like they were a lock to make the Western Conference Playoffs, it looked as if they could compete for the No. 1 seed, but the Pelicans are 9-23 since that game and find themselves on the outside of the play-in tournament. What’s changed for New Orleans in that span? Zion Williamson suffered a hamstring strain 48 hours before that game against the Rockets, and he hasn’t played since. Williamson was averaging 26 points on 61% shooting this season before he got hurt, and the Pelicans simply haven’t been able to replace him. The Pelicans have a 111.3 offensive rating in the 33 games he’s been out, fifth worst in the NBA.

Matchup to watch: Alperen Sengun vs. Jonas Valanciunas

Sengun and Valanciunas went nose-to-nose early in the third quarter after bumping into each other while walking to their bench when the Rockets called a timeout. The two centers were separated before the situation escalated further, but Valanciunas went right at Sengun when play resumed and scored six quick points. He had 20 after three quarters, but Sengun got the better of him in the fourth quarter, holding the Pelicans center to just two points in the game’s final period. Valanciunas scored 10 points on 5-of-9 shooting when defended by Sengun on Friday, but the Rockets center was able to score nine points when Valanciunas was the defender closest to him.

What I’m watching for

The Pelicans will be in desperation mode on Sunday night. They are coming off a brutal loss to one of the league’s worst teams and find themselves 12th in the Western Conference with just 12 games left on the schedule. The Rockets should expect the Pelicans to come out with their hair on fire, and the question becomes, can the Rockets match? Young teams don’t always handle success well, especially when they haven’t experienced it very much. Will the Rockets match that energy, or will they be on their heels early?

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