The big games keep coming for the Rockets. First the Heat and now the Lakers inside a week! The storyline dominating the national conversation about this game will the be arrival of Mike D’Antoni as Lakers coach. This will be his first game patrolling the sideline for LA, and after all the protracted “Phil or Mike?” discussions it will be intriguing to see the product that he can put on the floor.
That should not, of course, distract the Rockets from trying to spoil the party. Hopefully there will be a little extra motivation there to get the Lakers off to a bad start – this would be a big game for Houston anyway, but the additional spotlight makes it all the more so. The team has had a day to recover from the disappointment of losing their second overtime game to Portland. And of course, there’s still the continual disruption on their end of the bench due to Kevin McHale’s familial emergency. Kelvin Sampson will continue to deputize. There’s also a bit of familial rivalry on the benches – Bernie Bickerstaff has been coaching the Lakers during the interim period between coaches, and he will be facing off against JB Bickerstaff on the other side of the court.
It’s fair to assume that the main reason D’Antoni was hired was his familiarity with Nash. But with Nash out with a broken leg and backup point-guard Steve Blake out with an abdominal injury, he’s going to have to lean on youngster Darius Morris to run the point with Chris Duhon for backup. The rest of LA’s superstar starting 5 are all ready and reporting though – Bryant, World Peace né Artest, Gasol and Howard. Beyond that, the bench is mostly bare – we’ll see ex-Rocket Jordan Hill, Antawn Jamison and the aforementioned Chris Duhon off the bench, and perhaps some time for Jodie Meeks (his shooting would seem to be a good fit for how D’Antoni likes to run things). The key observation – barring Morris there really isn’t a lot of youth here. Might have been able to add Devin Ebanks to that list, but he got arrested on Friday for DUI so that seems unlikely.
The Rockets’ bench has really been coming into its own over the past week or so. We’ve seen excellent play from Marcus Morris and some signs of competence from Toney Douglas, culminating him actually being left on the floor during overtime against the Trailblazers on Friday. Delfino sat out of the Portland game with a groin injury, and there’s no word on whether he’ll be fit to play tonight. Greg Smith has continued to hustle well, although he was saddled with foul trouble last time out. They should have the edge over the Lakers when the starters aren’t in.
As several excellent NBA writers have pointed out, the main problem that Lakers had to start the season was not anything to do with Brown’s attempt to install a Princeton offence. It was on the defensive end where LA struggled, with sub-par numbers in their first 5 games of the season. Since Brown was fired though, there have been a string of much improved performances and they have managed to move up to 6th in the NBA in defensive efficiency at 97.5 points conceded per 100 possessions. This is more how it was expected to go given that they are anchored by Dwight Howard in the middle.
The Rockets have the personnel to cause the Lakers difficulty though – I really like how they match up against this team. The main thing the Lakers are good at on defence is using the length of their big men to trouble opponents from taking shots near the basket. They are second in the league in opposing FG% in the 3-9 foot range, allowing only 28.6%. (By the way, first in the league? The Houston Rockets, allowing only 27.3%!). They do however struggle to contain opponents who have genuinely got to the rim, allowing 65% on those shots (7th worst). Houston, as it happens, has an offence that revolves around taking more of the latter and less of the former – both Lin and Harden are great at getting to the rim, and we don’t post up the big men very often and ask them to make short shots.
Lin should be able to have a good game against Morris and Duhon. He’s got a shooting slump to get out of, and a combination of weak PG play and the aforementioned poor defence at the rim should help him improve on his 35.5% shooting numbers. Harden will likely get a lot of attention from World Peace, but the latter’s defence has regressed in recent years. There’s some bad blood between these two – remember this late last season? I’m sure Harden does. I’d expect him to have a good game in this one.
Key will be the ability of our 4s to step away from the basket. Neither Gasol nor Jordan Hill are particularly good away from the basket, and pulling them away from the hoop will open up driving lanes and create exploitable mismatches.
There are a couple of incredibly watchable individual matchups on this end of the court. First of all, will Chandler Parsons be able to repeat the excellent job he was able to do covering Bryant as a rookie? I rarely had more fun watching the Rockets last year than I did watching Parsons drape himself all over Bryant and forcing him into some incredibly high degree of difficulty shots. His ability to avoid biting on pump-fakes makes him an ideal defender for Bryant, who relies a lot on them these days to get the defender out of position so he can use his incredible footwork. I’m really looking forward to this one.
The other one of note is Howard vs. Asik. Howard has been his usual dominant self in play (60% on FGs) and his usual ineffectual self from the freethrow line (50% from FTs). This is a challenge to which Asik is well suited though, much better so than the stretch 5s that have troubled him in recent weeks (see Bosh, C and Aldridge, L). It will be a great to watch two giants going at each other on the low block.
A key concern in this game for Houston is going to be defensive rebounding. Up until now, Asik has been very solid, but it feels like the team as a whole has struggled on the defensive glass when the opposing team has multiple threats on the offensive glass. This was particularly true against Portland – Asik had his hands full with Hickson and this allowed the rest of Portland’s rebounders (particularly Meyers Leonard and Nicolas Batum) to wreck havoc. Tonight, both Gasol and Hill have the size to make rebounding difficult, and it will be on Patterson and Morris to make sure that neither profits from the defensive attention drawn to Howard.
While this will be D’Antoni’s first game in charge of the team, in practice he will have had little time to get his system implemented. That could play into the Rockets’ hands. The hallmarks of his offence are to give his point-guards a lot of freedom and spread the floor with shooters. Putting pressure on the inexperience Darius Morris at the point-guard position should lead to good results if the team’s play follows that pattern. This is perhaps something Toney Douglas could be called on to provide from time to time. It will be a challenge to rotate around to three point shooters on the perimeter given the attention all of the stars on the court for LA demand, but fortunately there aren’t very many three point shooters on their roster! Only Jodie Meeks can really be classed as a plus shooter from deep at this point – leaving World Peace open in the corner isn’t a particularly dangerous option by the standards of this team.
This match is full of intriguing individual match-ups. For Houston to win, it will have to get the best of those as well as working as a team to stymie the arsenal of weapons the Lakers possess on the offensive end. But given the form of the Lakers this is nevertheless a very winnable game.