Records: Lakers 27-6 (1st in West) Rockets 20-14 (7th in West)
Offensive points per 100 possessions: Lakers 109 (10th in league), Rockets 107.1 (14th in league)
Defensive points per 100 possessions: Lakers 101.1 (2nd in league) Rockets 105.4 (12th in league)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom, Andrew Bynum
Rockets: Aaron Brooks, Trevor Ariza, Shane Battier, Luis Scola, Chuck Hayes
Does Odom play? He is listed as questionable for tonight with a flu bug (his wife tweeted she was sick in bed on New Year’s Eve, so it’s going around). I have listed him as a starter but if he can’t go then look for Brown/Sasha to get the start, Artest to play the four and Kobe the three. But there goes the Lakers size advantage.
Does Kobe start hanging out in the post again? Great stats in an article (insider) up at ESPN. Tom Haberstroh is also a writer for hoopsdata.com and using that site he basically confirmed what we had all seen with our eyes — when Pau Gasol came back from his injury Kobe Bryant moved from playing more in the post to more on the perimeter.
Bryant took 2.4 more shots at the rim with Pau out and 2.4 fewer from beyond the arc every 40 minutes. It’s a coincidence that the difference is precisely 2.4, but the general tradeoff is undeniable — Kobe is much more perimeter-oriented when Gasol is in the lineup. Interestingly, teammates set up Kobe on all of his buckets from downtown in the 13 games Gasol missed, but less than two-thirds of them with Gasol was active, as evidenced by the assisted percentage. It looks as though Kobe generates more baskets off the dribble from 3-point land when Pau is on the floor, possibly off of the perimeter pick-and-roll. Clearly though, Kobe picks his spots differently depending on the active status of his All-Star counterpart.
The question becomes, what happens tonight and until Gasol returns (right now we still have no idea how long, but don’t expect him to play this weekend if you are smart, Gasol knows his body and after setbacks last time will be cautious). It will depend a bit on matchups game to game, but we may see this.
Also, Bynum’s play will be something to watch — by his own admission he is more focused with Gasol out. Tonight he has the size mismatch but has struggled to really assert himself against the hustling front line of the Rockets. Can he tonight?
The Rockets Coming In: The hardest part of putting together a title-contending team is the one thing beyond a general manager’s control — landing a superstar. The Rockets have a lot of hard-working, great role players on that team, but when it comes tome to get a shot at the end of the game, for someone to create their own luck, Houston struggles.
GM Daryl Morey has a bit of a cult status because he is comes from a statistics background, but he came in with two max deals as his stars: Tracy McGrady — who you can have now, no reasonable offer refused! Then there is Yao Ming, arguably the best center on the planet, when he is healthy and can play. Which is not this season. So what is left is the scrappy little team that hustles its way to an above .500 record and a playoff spot (if they started today). That is a credit to Morey, who put this squad together.
What he really needs now is a big star, Him and about 25 other GMs.
Keys to game: Look aback at the meeting from Nov. 15, when the Rockets beat the Lakers, and two things stand out.
One is that Aaron Brooks torched the Lakers with penetration. As we detailed at the time, this was more than just the Lakers guards not being able to stay in front of the speedster, it was a team failure. If that is to change it has to start with Fisher and Farmar doing a better job shading Brooks to help (nobody is going to just shut him down) and trying to get him to shoot midrange shots as opposed the penetration into the paint that killed the Lakers last game (Brooks is not a bad midrange shooter, he hits 38.6% from 10-15 feet, but that is less than at the rim). The other part of this is that the Laker bigs need to show out on the pick-and-roll and not just let Brooks turn the corner and get up a head of steam. Help rotations need to be crisp.
Another thing that fueled Brooks and the Rockets last game was Lakers turnovers — bad post entry passes led to fast break points the other way, and there is no Laker that is going to be able to keep up with Brooks in the open court.
The final thing is rebounding — the Lakers have a size advantage but got killed on the boards last meeting. The Lakers need to establish themselves as the dominant inside team, by pounding the ball into Bynum early then for him and Odom and Artest to dominate the glass. If they don’t, the Rockets will be off and running and the Lakers struggle to contain them in transition.
Where you can watch: 7:30 p.m. start on Fox Sports here in Los Angeles, and of course ESPN 710 radio.