The main headline for this game is obvious: Dwight Howard, who spurned the Lakers in free agency this summer, is the starting center for the Houston Rockets. Houston was a team on the rise even without Dwight, and they figure to finish in the top four in the Western Conference with his addition this season. They currently sit at 4-1 and are putting up close to 110 points per game. The Lakers come in off another horrific road performance in Tuesday night’s loss to the Dallas Mavericks. Just like the team’s first road loss to the Warriors, the Lakers had issues in Dallas with a lack of energy from the opening tap as well as poor defensive rotations. Look for Coach D’Antoni to make a change in the starting lineup (Jordan Hill or Chris Kaman in Shawne Williams’ place, perhaps) in order to jumpstart a unit that has been consistently outplayed by its bench thus far.
Frontcourt: To the dismay of all Laker fans who have watched the Rockets play this year, Dwight Howard looks to be fully engaged as a member of their franchise. He comes in averaging 17.4 points and 14.6 rebounds per game, and had 26 rebounds in his Rockets’ debut. In the past when Dwight was a member of the Magic, Pau had lots of success defending Dwight, namely in the 2009 Finals. However, Pau has lost a step with age, and the Lakers may have to send a double to help him out on the block if Dwight catches it too deep. Pau must focus on staying out of foul trouble and on keeping Dwight off the offensive glass. Howard is averaging nearly 4 offensive rebounds a night, and generates a lot of his offense in that manner.
Omer Asik has surprisingly started all five games alongside Dwight. Asik is a natural center, and many believed spacing would be an issue playing Howard and Asik side-by-side. However, it has worked out well thus far, as the Rockets are second in the league in rebounds per game and are still averaging nearly 110 points per game. Keeping Asik off the boards by whomever starts for the Lakers in the frontcourt will be essential. The other starter in the frontcourt is Chandler Parsons, who is perhaps the best bargain in the league due to his low salary (under $1 million per year) and high production. He is a rising star in the league, and comes in averaging 13.2 points per game. He is adept from beyond the arc as well as creating off the dribble in the Rockets’ pick-and-roll offense.
Backcourt: For the first time in many years, Kobe Bryant was not voted as the league’s best shooting guard by the league’s general managers. That nod went to the Rockets’ James Harden. While this voting could have swayed either way between the two if Kobe were healthy, this is a testament to the fact that James Harden is indeed a superstar in this league. Harden is perhaps the best player in the league at driving to the basket and drawing fouls, and got to the foul line ten times a game last year while hitting at an 85% clip. Harden is a nightmare matchup in the pick-and-roll. Unfortunately for the Lakers, with Bryant out the task of guarding Harden will likely fall to Steve Blake. Coach D’Antoni could consider switching Xavier Henry onto him and putting Blake on Chandler Parsons, but either way there will be a matchup problem.
Jeremy Lin and Patrick Beverley share point guard duties for the Rockets. Beverley is much better defensively, while Lin is more effective in the pick-and-roll on offense. Look for the Lakers to force either of these players to beat them from the outside, as both are not historically great catch-and-shoot players. The Lakers will be forced to help off of Harden when he penetrates or onto Dwight when he catches deep.
Keys to Lakers Victory:
Fast Start: The Lakers trailed by double digits after the first quarter in both of their road losses this year against the Warriors and Mavs. If the Rockets come out with four to six straight points to start the game, D’Antoni may want to consider calling a quick timeout. With an explosive team like the Rockets playing on their home floor to support Dwight against his former team, this game could get ugly fast if the Lakers do not come out focused.
Boards: Any team that has Dwight Howard will be amongst the league leaders in rebounds. Omer Asik is excellent on the boards as well. Together, they average nearly six offensive rebounds per game. The Lakers had been a strong rebounding team through the season’s first four games, but struggled mightily in that department on Tuesday night when they were out-rebounded 50-35 by the Mavs. Against a team that plays big like Houston and coming off an effort like they had last game, D’Antoni is expected to insert Jordan Hill or Chris Kaman into the starting unit.
Pau Gasol: Pau figures to be a key to victory for the Lakers any time they play an elite opponent until Kobe comes back. He needs to far exceed his season average of 14.6 points per night in this game, and needs to find a way to be much more efficient from the field (only 40% on the season). Pau posted a team-worst plus/minus of negative 32 against Dallas. This could be a big bounce-back game for him against his former teammate Dwight. Pau has to stay out of foul trouble for the Lakers to have a chance too.
Los Angeles Lakers (2-3) at Houston Rockets (4-1)
6:30 PM PST, November 6 2013
Toyota Center, Houston, TX
TV: TWC SportsNet, TNT
Radio: ESPN Radio 710 ESPNLA
Rockets Projected Starting Line-up
PG: Jeremy Lin
SG: James Harden
SF: Chandler Parsons
PF: Omer Asik
C: Dwight Howard
Key Reserves: SF Omri Casspi, GF Francisco Garcia, PG Patrick Beverley