What to watch vs. Atlanta Hawks

Standing at 6-foot-9 with an equally outsized personality, Bruno Fernando is hard to miss. Even as he sat out the Rockets’ last 15 games with left knee tendonitis, the center has been a vocal presence on the bench during games and practices, especially when it comes to cheering on sophomore big men Alperen Sengun and Usman Garuba.

“Yes, I talk too much,” Fernando said on Wednesday after completing his second full training since the injury. “I think I have to slow down sometimes. But you know, I care about the game. I love the game, and more than that, I care about the people around me. I care about guys like Us (Garuba) and seeing his success. … I just feel like (talking) keeps me involved in the game. It makes me feel like I’m still in the game and playing.”

Rockets coach Stephen Silas said Fernando will likely play in one back-to-back game this weekend at Toyota Center, either Friday against the Hawks or Saturday against the Thunder.

Of the handful of Rockets players limited by pain during Tuesday’s practice, only guard Eric Gordon returned Wednesday as a full participant in the team’s final pre-Thanksgiving practice. Guards Jalen Green and Josh Christopher were restrained. Center Alperen Sengun did not practice.

The Rockets opened the season against the Hawks on October 19 with a 117–107 loss in Atlanta, one of two games Fernando played before his injury. Since then, the Rockets are 3-13 and the Hawks are 10-6.

Atlanta has won four of its past five meetings with Houston. On Friday, the Hawks look to beat the season series for the fifth time in the past nine years, stretching back to 2014-2015.

Five things to watch in tonight’s game:

The Bruno effect?

If Fernando plays against the Hawks, it will present rotation decisions for the Rockets.

Fernando started the first two games of the season at center with Sengun coming off the bench. Since then, Sengun has been the starter and Garuba spells him in an energetic second unit.

Silas said the Rockets will consider playing Garuba at power forward alongside Sengun or Fernando, the latter of whom said playing alongside another great will not fundamentally change his role on the field.

“We will be able to work together,” said Fernando. “Alpe does a good job setting and popping screens. And if I can be a big one again standing there on the field, placing the screen and rolling to the edge and bringing the other scene, you know, that’s going to free up a lot more space for our shooters on the field. And Alpe did a good job getting his (shots). Especially Usman, who shoots the ball very, very well.”

In the season opener against the Hawks, Fernando went 3-of-3 with seven points, nine rebounds and a career-high seven assists in 25 minutes. Sengun scored 15 points with nine rebounds in 22 minutes off the bench.

Battle in the backcourt

The last time the Rockets played the Hawks marked the debut of Atlanta’s newly formed backcourt tandem of Trae Young and Dejounte Murray, who was traded from San Antonio during the offseason. While beating Houston, Young (23 points, 13 assists) and Murray (20 points, 11 assists) became the first pair of teammates in NBA history to dish out more than 10 assists in their first game together.

In the Hawks’ game against the Kings on Wednesday, Young and Murray are the only teammates to rank in the top 10 in total assists this season. They are also the first pair of teammates in NBA history to have at least 200 points and 100 assists each during the first 13 games of a season, according to Elias Sports.

Through 17 games, Atlanta’s backcourt of Young and Murray averaged a combined 47.7 points and 16.8 assists per game, with the most total assists (276) of any duo in the NBA. Young did not play in a single game due to an injury.

Houston’s starting backcourt from Kevin Porter Jr. and Jalen Green averages 40.8 points and 9.3 assists, with Porter missing one game due to injury.

Pick and roll diet

The Hawks live off the pick-and-roll and rank first in the NBA in pick-and-roll game type frequency according to league tracking data. In particular, they like to run the action through ball handlers—accounting for 22.9 percent of possessions—with Young and Murray as the go-to practitioners.

Atlanta averages 0.84 points per possession on PnRs through ball handlers, in the 41st percentile. Houston’s defense allows 0.94 points per possession on those plays, scoring in the 17th percentile.

Share the love

Porter, the Rockets’ leader with 5.8 assists per game, dished out another on Wednesday when he returned to the facility after practice to share two boxes of donuts from his favorite spot in southwest Houston.

On the field, Porter’s generosity was reflected in him leading Houston in assists in 12 of his 16 games played this season, including five of his last six. He averaged 7.0 assists over his last six games, after averaging 5.1 assists in the first 10 games of the season.

However, the Rockets as a team rank 27th in the NBA in assists per game (21.5), 26th in assist percentage (56), and last in assist ratio (15.4).

Finish strong

Considering they only have three wins, it’s not surprising the Rockets haven’t played a game this season where they’ve been leading all along, though getting leads wasn’t as big of a deal as keeping leads late .

The Rockets are 3-3 on a lead after 45 minutes of play this season and 0-11 on a tie or behind. In the fourth quarter, the opponents scored Houston with 3.0 points per game. In tie-in games, defined as games in which one team has no more than a five-point lead in the last five minutes, the Rockets have a 3-7 record.

The Hawks outscore opponents by just 0.4 points in the fourth quarter, but have a 4-2 record in clutch games and won both overtimes they’ve played.

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