Preview and Chat: The Houston Rockets

Kurt —  December 12, 2006

14-6. It was the record we hoped the Lakers would come out of that heavy home schedule with, and even with the toughest tests ahead I think we’ve learned a lot about this team through 20 games. And there are a lot of reasons to be excited. Due to a couple of big games I’ll wait a few days before any attempt at detailed first-quarter thoughts.

Here’s my bottom line – we’ve learned this is a team with a lot of potential, but in part because of its youth it doesn’t live up to that every night. They tend to play to the level of their competition. These Lakers are far from alone, some very good teams have done that too — the three-pete Lakers did, but then in the fourth quarter they’d turn it on and pull away. The current Lakers lack the maturity to win on an off night, or at least do it consistently.

But this team is deeper and more comfortable in the triangle than last season, they are growing, and guys like Bynum and Farmar are only going to get better. Then there is Radmanovic, who was set back with the hand injury and is behind on the offense learning curve, but who will come around. This is a team with a bright future, and in the first 20 games this season we have just started to see glimpses of it – like that amazing second half against San Antonio. We should be excited.

Thanks. Quick thank you to Gatinho for filling in for a few days while I spent time with the in-laws. And for all my concerns, Smush on the big screen looked good in that third quarter Sunday.

Iverson. No, he is not coming to the Lakers, nor should he. Iverson and Kobe’s games would mesh like acid and base. And while I generally don’t like to comment on rumors, it’s no rumor that Iverson will be traded. Personally, of all the places mentioned as a destination the one I think makes the most sense is Boston – in the East right now a combo of Pierce and Iverson might be an assault on shooting efficiency but the team would be a threat to make the Finals. What doesn’t make sense to me is Minnesota. Granted, they’ve failed at building around KG the last few years, and this would likely be seen by fans and many in the media as an attempt to right the ship and make them contenders. But while the team would sell tickets and would likely make the playoffs in the West, they are still just a 6-8 seed that would lose in the first round. Minnesota is in a tough spot: it’s going to be very difficult to build a champion around KG any more, but trade him and you alienate the fan base.

By the way, I think Henry at True Hoop’s random thought is not far fetched. I’ve just about finished reading Freakonomics, a book that among other things makes you think about peoples’ and organizations’ incentives for doing whatever they are doing. There are good incentives for the 76ers to bench Iverson then drag this out.

You’re with me, leather. The old leather NBA ball will be new again come January 1. Shocking that once a couple of stars like Steve Nash and Jason Kidd started talking about injuries due to chafing with the new ball, things change.

McGrady Out. The Lakers catch a break as the oft-injured Tracy McGrady is not expected to play against the Lakers as back spasms are slowing him again. It’s a big blow to the Rockets’ offense — McGrady handled 28.9% of the team’s shots when he was on the floor, that’s a lot to make up for.

Yao vs. Kwame. This will be the match up of the night, and I like the Lakers in this one (to a degree). Kwame has always been best when he can use his strength to root guys out of the post. He has his best defensive games against traditional centers like Shaq or Yao. Not that you can stop Yao — he is shooting 52.9% from the floor while using a whopping 30.1% of his teams shots when on the floor (7th highest in the league). That works out to 25.5 points (along with 9.4 rebounds and 2 blocks) per game. Also, Kwame (and Bynum) must keep Yao off the boards, he is grabbing 15.1% of the available rebounds.

It’s all about the defense. The Rockets are the best defensive team in the NBA right now, giving up just 98.8 points per 100 possessions (compare that to the Lakers at 106.8, 13th in the league). They do it the old fashioned way, by keeping the other team from shooting well — opponents shoot just 44.9% eFG% against them. It helps to have a big shot blocker like Yao in the paint, it also helps that his replacement is defensive force Dikembe Mutombo.

Things to look for: Pace will be a key. The Rockets want it slow, they average 88.7 possessions per game, fourth slowest in the league. The Lakers are at 92.4, seventh fastest (and as Rob has said before, when the Lakers are above that number they do well). Whichever team can control the pace of the game will have a big advantage.

Battier was a great pick up for the Rockets, they are +14.2 per 48 minutes when he is on the floor. Oddly, however, the position that has had the most success against the Rockets is the four. Odom needs to step up.

Outside of McGrady the Rockets have gotten spotty (at best) perimeter play. The Lakers need to make sure that trend continues and try to turn this into a Yao vs. Lakers game, then count on Kwame and Bynum (who seems to play his best against the best) to get the Lakers a win with their defense.