Tonight marks the first game post All-Star break for both the Lakers and the Houston Rockets. The “Dwight Howard facing his former team” narrative is likely to not be as strong of a story as it was at the beginning of the year when the two teams met. However, expect to hear heavy boos from the Los Angeles crowd when Dwight’s name is announced in the starting lineup and when he touches the ball in the early going. Houston comes in as the hottest team in the NBA with seven straight wins and has become a dark horse contender for a championship. The young Rockets figure to only get better in the season’s second half.
Frontcourt: Dwight Howard looks nothing like the player he was while he donned a Laker uniform. While some of this is attributable to his effort, it also has to do with Howard being fully recovered from his back injury. Howard has reclaimed his title as the league’s best center and is close to his usual self on the defensive end, although the Orlando version of Howard was more dominant on that end. Though his offensive game remains unpolished, the undermanned Lakers are likely going to have to send a double team to him on the block.
Chandler Parsons, the starting three-man, 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, and comes in averaging 17 points per game. He is adept from beyond the arc as well as creating off the dribble in the Rockets’ pick-and-roll offense. He is highly efficient at 50% from the field and 40% from beyond the arc. It is hard to think of a better third option to fit in next to James Harden and Howard. The forgotten man in Houston’ starting lineup is Terrance Jones, who starts at power forward. His insertion into the starting lineup after the beginning part of the season helped make the Rockets a much more balanced team. He is having a breakout season in averaging 11.7 points and 7.3 rebounds a night.
Backcourt: James Harden went from a sixth man to a superstar when he became the lead man in Houston last season. Harden is perhaps the best player in the league at driving to the basket and drawing fouls, and gets to the foul line nearly nine times a game while hitting at an 86% clip. Harden is a nightmare matchup in the pick-and-roll. Harden has struggled with his three-point shot this season (just 32% on year), so the Lakers will try their best to have him beat them from distance and keep him out of the paint.
Jeremy Lin and Patrick Beverly share point guard duties for the Rockets. Beverly is the starter and is much better defensively, while Lin is much more effective in the pick-and-roll on offense. Lin has had a great year after struggling for much of last season and comes in with averages of 13.1 points and 4.5 assists while also cutting down on his turnovers. He is the leader of the second unit, as he is able to have the ball in his hands more playing without Harden on the floor. Coach Kevin McHale has the luxury of essentially having two starting-caliber point guards.
Keys to Lakers Victory:
Knock Down Threes: With the large talent disparity between these two teams, the Lakers likely have to make somewhere in the range of 13-15 three-pointers in order to pull out a victory. On the other hand, if they aren’t hitting, this could lead to run-outs for Houston, which would be disastrous as the Rockets are a running team (fifth in the league in fastbreak points per game).
Keep Houston Off Line: The Rockets are first in the league at percentage of points earned from the free throw line. Howard remains a terrible free throw shooter, so he is an exception to this rule if he has a dunk attempt. The key to keeping Houston off the line is to find a way to make them a jump shooting team, with Harden in particular. The Rockets are a team that can go cold from the outside at times and thrive more on penetration than anything else.
Limit Turnovers: Houston is the third highest scoring team in the league. If the Lakers have any hope of matching them basket-for-basket, they will need to protect the ball. Keeping it a halfcourt game is important to a potential Laker victory, and unforced turnovers will lead to easy fastbreak opportunities for the Rockets.
Houston Rockets (36-17) at Los Angeles Lakers (18-35)
7:30 PM PST, February 19, 2014
Staples Center, Los Angeles, CA
TV: TWC SportsNet, ESPN
Radio: ESPN Radio 710 ESPNLA
Rockets Projected Starting Line-up
PG: Patrick Beverly
SG: James Harden
SF: Chandler Parsons
PF: Omer Asik
C: Dwight Howard
Key Reserves: PG Jeremy Lin, SF Omri Casspi, PF Donatas Motiejunas
Lakers Projected Starting Line-up
PG: Kendall Marshall
SG: Steve Blake
SF: Wesley Johnson
PF: Shawne Williams
C: Chris Kaman
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