Friday, April 12, 2024
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NBA Preview: Cleveland Cavaliers (42-24) at Houston Rockets (31-35)

Cleveland welcomed five-time All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell back to its lineup on Wednesday in New Orleans. And given how unevenly they performed during his seven-game injury absence, the short-handed Cavaliers certainly were elated to have Mitchell back and contributing as they prepare to visit the Houston Rockets on Saturday.

But what resonated for the Cavaliers (42-24) in their 116-95 victory over the Pelicans was yet another stifling defensive performance, one that came with Cleveland still playing without starters Evan Mobley (ankle) and Max Strus (knee), and reserve Dean Wade (personal).

The Cavaliers entered Friday third in the NBA with a 110.8 defensive rating, and even with their roster compromised by injury, they limited the Pelicans to a 46.3 effective field goal percentage while recording four steals and four blocked shots.

Mitchell, as was to be expected, was somewhat rusty, missing 11 of 16 shots while posting 14 points and five assists. But the Cavaliers — currently third in the Eastern Conference standings — were locked in defensively, earning high praise from coach J.B. Bickerstaff, who used the term “elite” to describe his defense.

The Rockets (31-35) won for the sixth time in seven games on Thursday, rolling over the Washington Wizards 135-119 for their fourth consecutive victory. Houston has generated momentum despite being without standout center Alperen Sengun (ankle/knee) for the last two games, relying on a smaller lineup with rookie guard Amen Thompson replacing Sengun.

The three-guard lineup worked against the Wizards. Thompson (20 points, 11 rebounds, four assists, three steals) contributed an all-around effort to complement the scoring of Jalen Green and Fred VanVleet, who totaled 64 points, with Green adding eight boards and VanVleet nine assists.

Without Sengun and rookie wing Cam Whitmore (knee), the Rockets are facing an uphill battle in terms of maintaining their recent momentum. But their play of late has sparked hopes of challenging for a play-in berth in the Western Conference, with recent wins bolstering those odds.

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