There are no more excuses for the Lakers to make; at this point in the season, they are simply not a good basketball team. The road only gets tougher now, as Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol are out indefinitely. To make matters worse, Jordan Hill is out tonight and Wednesday night as well. After finally reaching the .500 mark with a December 28th victory over the Portland Trail Blazers, the Lakers have dropped their last three games, including a 112-105 defeat at the hands of the Denver Nuggets Sunday night. One would be hard pressed to find a team in the league that is playing worse defense than the Lakers right now. With tonight’s road game against the Houston Rockets, the league’s highest scoring team, the task gets no easier.
The Lakers will be facing the Houston Rockets for the third time this season, and they split the first two meetings. Steve Nash did not play in either meeting, and Antawn Jamison started the second game between the teams. Look for Jamison to play a prominent role tonight with Gasol and Howard both out. The Rockets come into the game on a four-game winning streak and, with a 20-14 record, are one of the surprise teams in the NBA. This matchup figures to be a high-scoring affair, as both teams are in the top five in points per game, but also in the bottom five in points allowed.
Frontcourt: Center Omer Asik has lived up to the lucrative 3-year, $25 million deal he signed with the Rockets in the offseason thus far. Asik played only 14 minutes a game as a reserve on the Chicago Bulls last season, and his contract raised the eyebrows of many critics. He comes in averaging a double-double at 10.6 points and 11.4 rebounds per night, and is one of the better defensive centers in the NBA. Robert Sacre, assuming he starts at center in Howard’s absence, must keep Asik off the boards and provide solid help defense when the Houston guards penetrate.
Small forward Chandler Parsons, in his second season, has established himself as one of the best role players in the NBA. He is the second leading scorer on the team at 14 points per game and is the team’s best perimeter defender. He has expanded his game to where he is a threat off the dribble in pick and roll situations as well as in catch and shoot opportunities from three point range.
Backcourt: James Harden, the reigning Sixth Man of the Year, has proven to be worthy of the max contract he signed with Houston after being traded to the team from the Oklahoma City Thunder. Harden ranks fifth in the league in scoring and has no real weaknesses as an offensive player. While he is a good outside shooter, he causes the most damage in pick and roll situations. He is one of the best in the league at drawing fouls (10.3 free throw attempts per game, and shooting 86% from the line), but is equally effective at setting up teammates (averaging 5.3 assists a night). The Lakers have shown that they are capable of slowing him down, as he was 3-19 from the field in their last meeting. However, the Rockets were still able to pull out the victory.
Jeremy Lin, fresh off his breakout season with the New York Knicks, was another addition to this re-made Houston roster this summer. Lin got off to a slow start this year while adjusting to playing with another ball dominant player in Harden, but he has picked up his play of late. He has brought up his field goal percentage to a respectable level, and still remains a great distributor. Lin comes in averaging 12.1 points and 6.4 assists per game. Look for the Lakers to put Lin, a subpar defender, in a large amount of pick and roll situations because the Lakers are going to have Steve Nash as their second option with both of their big men out.
Keys to Victory:
Contain the Rocket Bench: The Lakers have made a habit of allowing bench players on opposing teams to far exceed their nightly scoring averages. Every night, it seems as if a role player on the other team comes in against the Lakers with supreme confidence and changes the flow of the game. The Lakers’ loss to the Rockets this season was no different, as their bench put up 59 points as a unit including a career high 21 from forward Greg Smith. The Lakers will have little chance of pulling off a victory if they allow the Houston reserves to have another night like this one.
Limit Houston’s Fast Break Points: Houston only really has one player who can create his own shot in James Harden, yet they manage to lead the NBA in scoring. Why? The Rockets are first in the league in fast break points per game at 19.0. For an older team like the Lakers, this could make for a long night. Though Houston isn’t the most athletic team, Harden and Lin do an excellent job of pushing the ball up the floor and setting up teammates. The Lakers must prevent many of the easy baskets that have become an every game occurrence for their opponents.
Houston Rockets (20-14) vs. Los Angeles Lakers (15-18)
5:00 PM PST, January 8, 2012 Toyota Center, Houston, TX
CA TV: TWC Sports Network
Rockets Projected Starting Line-up
SG: James Harden
SF Chandler Parsons:
PF: Marcus Morris
C: Omer Asik
Key Reserves: F Patrick Patterson, F Greg Smith, G Carlos Delfino