HOUSTON - Hornets guard Kemba Walker is the focus of an organizational initiative for an All-Star Game bid, and while Walker is worthy of that effort, he might not be the Hornets' most indispensable player.
The streaky Hornets (20-18) dropped their second consecutive game on Saturday night without swingman Nicolas Batum fully available. Batum suffered a hyperextended right knee while playing just 25 minutes in a loss at Detroit on Jan. 5, and with him sidelined against the San Antonio Spurs, the Hornets suffered a 102-85 defeat -- their fourth setback in their past five games.
Batum is second to Walker on the team in scoring at 15.1 points per game. He paces Charlotte in average minutes (34.5), rebounds (7.4) and assists (5.8). The Hornets, who will visit the red-hot Houston Rockets (30-9) on Tuesday night at Toyota Center, started Jeremy Lamb to fill the void left by Batum in San Antonio.
Consistency has proven elusive for the Hornets, who won five of six games before their recent slump. Before that, Charlotte sandwiched two four-game skids around another eight-game span that featured six victories. Without Batum, the Hornets will be challenged to reel off another winning stretch, for they remain in flux determining how they'll replace his offensive production and defensive reliability.
"With Nic out we've got to have some guys step up," Hornets coach Steve Clifford said. "And we've struggled with that these last two games.
"We've got to get better play out of those wing positions."
The Rockets won eight consecutive games and appear to have made the best of their prolonged stretch without center Clint Capela, who has missed 11 games with a broken leg. Capela is slated to return at some point this month, but in his absence the Rockets keep finding ways to overcome opponents.
Houston faced double-digit deficits in each of its previous five games, recording in-game turnarounds of 25 points against the Raptors, 18 against the Magic, 32 against the Thunder, 25 against the Wizards, and 30 in a New Year's Eve victory over the New York Knicks. Rallying time and again might prove riveting but it is unsustainable, and the deficits point to a larger issue for Houston without Capela.
The Rockets have allowed 108.4 points per 100 possessions over their last 11 games (20th in the NBA during that span) with a 6.8 net rating. Both of those numbers are off their season marks for defensive rating and net rating and reflect in part the Rockets' ability to overwhelm foes with their offense. Houston did so again in rallying to victory in Toronto on Sunday, posting 34 points in each of the final three periods to outscore the Raptors 129-122.
"I don't know if we played well," Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni said. "We played hard."
The Rockets had their 10-game winning streak snapped in their first game without Capela on Dec. 20 against the Spurs. That they've gone 9-1 since that defeat speaks to their ability to scratch out victories even without being whole, even without their best rebounding big and rim protector.
"That's what confidence is for," Rockets forward Trevor Ariza said.