Regular season basketball tips off tonight with former Los Angeles Laker Dwight Howard coming to town. Though it has been over a year since Howard spurned the Lakers, the drama has ramped up in recent weeks as ESPN’s Henry Abbott penned a scathing criticism of Kobe Bryant that seemed to justify Howard’s unceremonious departure, among other things. Expect Kobe to have extra motivation throughout the season and especially tonight’s contest against his former teammate. Notching a win will be a tall task as the Rockets have a good starting five.
Frontcourt: The Rockets defense goes as Dwight Howard goes. His sterling reputation as a defensive game-changer may have taken a hit in recent years, but when healthy, he continues to be a major force. In his first season with the Rockets, Howard averaged 18.3 points and 12.2 boards, which closely mirrors his lone season with the Lakers. Jordan Hill will have his hands full scoring the ball against Howard, but should be well aware of Howard’s offensive tendencies, having defended him in practices for a full season. Offensively, Howard doesn’t possess a big bag of tricks and if Hill can keep him off of the offensive glass, he should be able to play him to a stalemate.
Terrence Jones gets the nod at the four and will be looking to build on his breakout second season. Like Howard, Jones is a disruptive defensive player and will collect his share of steals and blocks over the course of the year. On offense though, he is more or less left to fend for himself, but did so admirably last year, averaging 12.1 points on 54.2 percent shooting.
The other former Laker in the Rockets starting lineup is Trevor Ariza, who has taken the spot of Chandler Parsons. Despite enjoying his best statistical season, Parsons wound up with the Mavericks this summer as the Rockets chose not to match his offer sheet, instead signing Ariza to a far more economical deal. Talent-wise, Ariza is comparable to Parsons, but he brings a lot more to the table defensively at the cost of some offense. That said, Ariza has become a very good shooter and is coming off of a season in which he made a whopping 180 triples.
Backcourt: Since his departure from the Thunder, James Harden has become one of the best offensive players in the league. But his defense leaves much to be desired and I expect he’ll have a chip on his shoulder in light of the highly embarrassing eleven minute compilation of his defensive lapses that went viral earlier this year. However, he may not get the chance to prove himself as head coach Kevin McHale will probably opt to put Ariza on the opposing team’s best perimeter player to conserve Harden’s energy. He finished last season as the team leader in points (25.4) and assists (6.1) per game and may shoulder an even bigger load this year.
At point guard, Patrick Beverley will go head to head with his former teammate Jeremy Lin. Lin and Beverly shared lead guard duties in Houston, but the Rockets decided they preferred Beverley’s defense to Lin’s offense. The Lakers capitalized on this by acquiring Lin via trade over the summer and each player now has sole possession of a coveted starting job. Beverly is a relentless defensive player, but is pretty limited offensively.
Keys to Lakers’ Victory:
Keep Harden off the Charity Stripe: It’ll be a long day in the office for the Lakers who have to check Harden as he routinely finds his way into the lane and draws foul shots. Last season, Harden only trailed Kevin Durant in free throw attempts per game at an obscene 9.1. I expect the loss of Lin and Parsons to leave the Rockets stagnant on offense at times, so it will be especially important for the Lakers to limit Harden’s freebies. Look for both Kobe Bryant and Wes Johnson to spend some time marking him in tonight’s contest.
Take Advantage of the Second Unit: The Rockets lost a number of key contributors over the course of the summer. In addition to Lin and Parsons, the Rockets no longer have Omer Asik or Omri Casspi on their roster. This has left them with a pretty thin bench that the Lakers will need to capitalize on when the starters are catching a breather. Julius Randle and Ed Davis will need to be particularly aggressive against a thin second string frontcourt.
Attack Dwight Howard: What better way to take Dwight Howard out of the game than to, well, actually take him out of the game? With the undrafted Tarik Black listed as the second string center, the Lakers need to do everything in their power to take the ball straight to Howard early and often. Howard has often dealt with foul trouble in the past and Jeremy Lin is fully capable of drawing a handful of calls by forcing him to play defense out of position as a help defender.
Heading into tonight’s game, the Lakers are 6.5-point underdogs against the Rockets via Sportsbook.ag.
Houston Rockets (0-0) at Los Angeles Lakers (0-0)
7:30 PM PST, October 28, 2014
Staples Center, Los Angeles, CA
Radio: 710 ESPN (English) / 1330 ESPN (Spanish)
Rockets Projected Starting Lineup
PG: Patrick Beverley
SG: James Harden
SF: Trevor Ariza
PF: Terrence Jones
C: Dwight Howard
Key Reserves: SG: Jason Terry, SG: Troy Daniels, PF: Donatas Montiejūnas
Lakers Projected Starting Lineup
PG: Jeremy Lin
SG: Kobe Bryant
SF: Wesley Johnson
PF: Carlos Boozer
C: Jordan Hill
Lakers Practice: Kobe Bryant Before Opening Night