Preview and Chat: Houston Rockets

Kurt —  March 16, 2008

Records: Lakers 45-20 (1 seed — tie); Rockets 45-20 (1 seed – tie)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 113 (3rd); Rockets 108.1 (16th)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 106 (5th); Rockets 102.2 (2nd)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Vladimir Radmanovic, Lamar Odom, Ronny Turiaf
Rockets: Rafer Alston, Tracy McGrady, Shane Battier, Luis Scola, Dikembe Mutombo

How the Lakers do it: Normally, with so many injuries, you’d expect a heavy dose of Kobe today. However, with the very good man defender Battier on Kobe, it’s going to take more of a team effort to get things done.

Here are the two areas I think are key for the Lakers while Gasol remains out.

1) Defense in the paint. Gasol at times provided some solid defense inside, but it never looked like his heart was really in it. Ronny Turiaf may not have the same skill level, but all of his heart is in everything he does. Remember, back in training camp Turiaf was played as a starter because he was providing toughness inside (a role Bynum ultimately filled better than Ronny could). He has to do that now, block shots and dominate on the boards. He has to play at the top of his abilities. And, when he’s not in DJ Mbenga has to do those same things. The Laker offense is going to be less potent, the defense has to get better and it starts inside. And the rebounding must improve as well, the Lakers cannot afford to give up many second chances.

2) Get back to running. Drrayeye mentioned this yesterday — since Gasol’s arrival the Lakers have slowed the pace some. Today and for the rest of the trip they need to get back to running, to getting some of the easy baskets that come in transition. Farmar will be key with the second (and at times first) units, and I’d like to see Phil go small at times and try to run that way. The Lakers are a good running team when they do it.

The Rockets Coming In: Winning 21 in a row is an amazing streak.

And for the Rockets it starts on the defensive end — this has been a very good defensive. In the last 10 games opposing teams are shooting just 43.4% (eFG%, for comparison the Lakers are 46.7%). Regular commenter here and Rockets fan Stephen posted some comments yesterday along these lines:

They are playing outstanding team defense. It all begins w/Shane Battier. His non-stop shadowing of the other team’s top scorer not only sets the tone for the team, it also allows the rest of the team to concentrate on the rest of the opposition. His hard work allows the rest to make defensive rotations on the perimeter and protect the paint. Mutombo is giving 15-20min in 2-4 stretches where he is blocking everything.

On offense, there is Tracy McGrady – he is averaging 25.6 points per game shooting 52.2% (eFG%) and getting to the line six times a game. He’s getting balanced back up from Rafer Alston, Luis Scola, the surprising Carl Landry and even double-digit points per game from Shane Battier. They have balance, a number of guys who can score, and they don’t need to score a ton with their defense.

Keys To The Game: On defense, the Lakers have to make the Rockets uncomfortable, meaning beating them to the spots they like to get the ball. You, me, Kobe, the ball boy all know McGrady prefers to get the ball on the wing, try to deny that pass. It may mean a back door or two but don’t let him get comfortable.

The Lakers defense cannot collapse into the paint today. Rockets love to shoot the three – taking 26.6 a game in the last 10 games. And they are hitting 35.7% of those attempts. Alston, Battier, Head and McGrady can all hit the three (all above 33.3% in the last 10), the Lakers defenders cannot sag off them at the three-point line.

On offense, this cannot be the Kobe show, Battier is a good defender and will lower Kobe’s efficiency. Somebody – Odom? Fisher? Radmanovic? – has to step up and take on a role of second scorer. I think Odom can have some effectiveness on Scola, and whoever has Radmanovic will be smaller than him I look to those two. There needs to be some balance to the offense today.

The Rockets have won 21 in a row in part because this is one of the hardest working teams in the NBA. They play hard for a full 48, and if the Lakers start to coast at all they will pay a steep price.

Where you can watch: The game is at 12:30 pm. (Pacific) on ABC where you pray we get Van Gundy as an announcer because he’s the only good guy they have. In LA, the game also is on KCAL (9).