The Rockets come home to the Toyota Center tonight for a one game home stand against one of the league’s most glamourous teams. In many respects these two teams are polar opposites. The Rockets are rolling with four straight wins, the Lakers are reeling with three straight losses. The Rockets are young, the Lakers are old, the Rockets are healthy, the Lakers are banged up. Expectations in Houston are on the rise as the team’s chances of making the playoffs solidify by the day, expectations in LA are plummeting as dreams of championship contention slip away. Unlike the stylistic similarities of the previous game against Cleveland, tonight’s game will be a study in contrasts.
The Rockets will have had two days rest since their bout with the Cavaliers. While the coaching staff will have been very satisfied with recent results, there are always improvements to be made and the extra time to implement a few new sets and perhaps brush up on some defensive principles is sure to come in handy. The Lakers come to Houston on the back of yet another high profile disappointment against Denver on Friday (although to be honest, it seems like every loss for the Lakers is a high profile disappointment these days). Morale is low, with players talking about a lack of chemistry and a surfeit of years, and whereas up until a few days ago it seemed unthinkable that this team full of stars would be taking an early bath at the end of the season, doubts are beginning to surface about their ability to dig themselves out of an ever-deepening hole.
The big news here is the absence of the majority of the Lakers’ front court players. Pau Gasol’s concussion has him listed as out indefinitely, Dwight Howard has a torn labrum and won’t be playing for another week, and Jordan Hill is also going to miss the game with a hip injury. Missing their top three frontcourt players would be a hindrance for any team, but it’s especially damaging for a team as top heavy as the Lakers due to the lack of adequate bench replacements who could step up. There’s only one true centre still standing on the roster, and that’s 7 foot rookie Robert Sacre. Here’s his highlight reel, showcasing his elite skills! The key observation to take from that – he’s not on the court very much, having logged only 55 minutes this year. But he’ll get the start tonight along side Jamison, and when he’s not on the court the Lakers are going to have to press either Jamison or Metta World Peace (!) into service at the 5. Earl Clark and Devin Ebanks can also fill out the forward spots, but it’s going to be a struggle for any of these guys to provide a competent inside presence on defence. It’s going to be a shock to the system to this team, who will probably have had the least practice at playing small of anyone in the league.
Of course, Nash and Kobe are still around to provide a significant backcourt threat. Darius Morris can be counted on to spell Nash from time to time, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Kobe decides he’s going to put the team on his back and ends up playing 40+ minutes. To start off with MWP will be the small forward, but in smaller lineups Jodie Meeks will slot in at shooting guard and Kobe and MWP will slide down a spot. Let’s not forget that there are plenty of holes in the backcourt too – both Steve Blake and Chris Duhon are out, and Darius Johnson-Odom has just been released.
Compared to the ravaged Los Angeles roster, Houston’s is pretty much pristine. The only possible question mark at the moment is Chandler Parsons, who sat out of yesterday’s practice with illness. This is unfortunate, since his battles with Kobe have always been fun to watch (and since Kobe is going to be shouldering even more offensive load than usual, his absence would be felt even more than usual). Hopefully he will have recovered in time for the game. Patterson has been outplaying Morris quite considerably over the past few games, and must surely be in line to retake his starting spot in the very near future. We saw him playing centre for stretches against the Bucks, and he might reprise that role at times tonight if McHale feels the need to match the Lakers in going small.
On paper, there’s a clear weakness the Rockets should be exploiting – the lack of interior presence. But as much as it would be tempting to try posting up Asik, the Rockets should refrain from going to him too much. In an interesting article this week, Henry Abbott wrote about how players with limited offensive skills often look to isolate Steve Novak imprudently on the basis of his poor defensive reputation, but in the process are only able to put up mediocre offensive numbers. It would be easy to fall into the same trap here. At the end of the day the Rockets have a formula that has been working extremely well and it would be foolish to deviate from that for the sake of chasing a few mismatches.
It should be noted that Harden has had two of his worst shooting games as a Rocket (neither 7-18 nor 3-19 are pretty reading) against the Lakers thanks to a combination of World Peace on the perimeter and Howard being there to meet him under the rim. But although World Peace may take up the defensive duties again at the beginning of the game, he’s going to have to cover some of the bigger guys eventually and Harden will be left with the much easier task of breaking down Jodie Meeks and perhaps Earl Clark (I think the Lakers will resist putting Bryant on him to save him for the other end). In addition, the shot blocking menace of Dwight Howard will be absent, making things a whole lot easier around the rim. Lin should also be able to feast against the permissive defence of Nash and the lack of tall trees in the painted area.
As we’ve seen with the Heat’s struggles on the defensive end so far this season compared to their normal superlative work on that end of the floor, it takes a lot of effort and practice to make a smallball lineup effective defensively in anything other than short stretches. The Lakers will have neither the transcendent defensive presence of LeBron nor an offseason’s worth of practice like the Heat, so don’t expect swarming double teams and crisp rotations. I’m expecting to see a lot of open looks and wouldn’t be surprised if this one turns into a very high scoring game.
For several seasons, observers have criticised Kobe for calling his own number too often on offence. But tonight, with only Nash alongside him to provide any real attacking threat, he would be forgiven for turning the game into the Kobe Bryant show. Expect him to put up a lot of shots, be they heavily contested or otherwise. If Parsons is fit to do so, he’s going to be very busy this evening. If Bryant is hot he can sink you, but it’s worth noting that the Lakers have lost every one of the 9 games this season where Bryant has scored 35 or more. In order for the Lakers to win this one they will need someone other than Bryant to pick up the load, and that person is likely to be Nash.
Steve Nash spent his post-Amare years in Phoenix lifting the performance of his mostly subpar team almost singlehandly. If he’s allowed to, he can make his big men look good and the pick-and-roll sing. For example, if you cast your mind back a couple of years you may remember this game, in which the generally poor Hakim Warrick was made to look like a monster en route to 32 points from 14-19 shooting. If he is given the time on the ball to get into a rhythm, he may be able to coax enough life out of the rest of the team to be competitive. This seems like an unlikely scenario on a team with Kobe Bryant, though. What is more likely is that he’ll be used to space the floor a bit – it’s easy to forget that he’s one of the game’s premier shooters given his other talents. He is usually quite conservative with his shot selection, allowing him to shoot a high percentage, but he has always been able to turn on the scoring tap if his team needs it, and they will tonight.
The Lakers will be going small a lot, and the onus will be on McHale to decide whether to match them in the small lineups of try and make use of the size advantage. We saw him dust off one of his old favourite from last year against Milwaukee when he put Patterson at centre, and he might give that another whirl this evening. If the ball movement is good enough, the Rockets may struggle to keep up with the Perimeta rotations if they are playing with a two big man line. Of course, when the Kobe show kicks off the ball movement for the Lakers tends to grind to a halt.
The injury woes of the Lakers make the Rockets the clear favourites for this game. However, you can never take a game likely when players of the calibre of Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant on the opposing team. Provided that Houston stick to the game plan that has been working so well for the last stretch and avoid the temptation to tinker too much, they should be able to take this game on the back of their offence.