Records: Lakers 53-19 (1st in West), Rockets 36-35 (10th in West, 16.5 behind Lakers)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 108.8 (11th in NBA), Rockets 107.0 (16th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 102.7 (4th in NBA), Rockets 107.2 (16th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol
Rockets: Aaron Brooks, Chase Budinger, Trevor Ariza, Luis Scola, Chuch Hayes
The Lakers Coming In: Former NFL coach Bill Parcels used to say that “you are what your record says you are”. And, in sports, I think that’s pretty much truth. I mean, the Nets and ‘Wolves (for example) are quite bad. And based off record, the Lakers are one of the best teams in the NBA. However, the Lakers are also one of the more inconsistent teams in the NBA and they’ve been that all season. Capable of playing great ball and beating anyone, of playing awful and losing ugly and everything else in between. This is the truth of what this team is. Does that mean they can’t win the title? No, it does not. But what it does mean that following this team through the playoffs will be a true roller coaster ride that will have fans exhaulting them one game and condemning them the next. Really, this is the same as last season (see the Houston and Denver playoff series) so I urge fans to try and get used to this fact again. I do understand that this team has seemingly lacked the “desire” or “hunger” of last years’ team. However, I also understand that this team is different in its personnel and its makeup. They are the defending champions that is no longer doing the hunting; they are the hunted. And that target on your back can become a heavy load to carry night in and night out. My point in all of this is that while there is no reason to think that this team has some sort of magical switch it can flip to suddenly become dominant, there’s also no reason to think that when challenged in a playoff series that they don’t have the resolve to win. Seeing what actually happens is why we watch the games.
The Rockets Coming in: The Rockets have been struggling to get wins lately. They’ve lost 3 in a row and 4 of their last 5 games. In their last game, trade deadline acquisition Kevin Martin sat out with a sore left shoulder and the Rockets proceeded to lose to the Clippers. That game also saw Shane Battier miss his eighth consecutive game due to a hyper-extended left knee. With that last loss, the Rockets now sit 6.5 games out of the 8th seed of the playoffs with only 11 games left to play. Basically, at this point, even though this team has fought hard over the course of the season it looks like the Rockets will miss the playoffs for the first time since the 2006 season. A season that, coincidentally, saw Yao Ming play in only 57 games and T-Mac only play in 47. And while this teams’ secondary players are more talented than the group that played without those stars several seasons ago, the point remains that this seasons’ Rockets have missed that big time talent that can carry them from night to night. You can get by on hustle and mettle for only so long before talent level and ability catch up to you. The fact that a group that’s been led mostly by Brooks and Scola is above .500 this late in the season speaks volumes about the heart and character of this team. This group of guys should be proud about the effort they’ve put forth in the 2010 campaign.
But this season is not over yet and the Rockets will continue to play hard. Besides Martin, new acquisitions Jared Jeffries and (rookie) Jordan Hill have round roles on this team. Chase Budinger has turned into a gem of a 2nd round pick and is flashing the talent that had him pegged as a lottery pick throughout his college career. And when Martin was healthy, Ariza had found his stride again as a highly effective role player that was slotted correctly as a 3rd or 4th option on offense that does the little things to help teams win. There are positives with this team. It’s just, in a very deep western conference, they didn’t have enough this year.
Rockets Blogs: Red94 is a very good sight that brings in depth analysis and great information on the Rockets. It’s worth a visit. Or 50. Check them out.
Keys to game: Contrary to popular beilief, the Rockets are not an elite defensive team this season. They will battle you for position and they will play hard, but they don’t have Yao as a detterent at the basket and are missing their best wing defender in Battier. This season, they are middle of the road and have holes on defense that can be exploited.
While a fantastic post defender, Chuck Hayes is still undersized and can be shot over the top of. Tonight will be a night where Pau won’t be able to just back down his defender, but he will be able to get his shot off (granted he doesn’t expose the ball too early to Hayes’ quick hands) by being active on the block and using his quickness to get to spots on the floor where he can be effective. I’d really like to see Pau get his post touches off of ball reversals rather than on the standard sideline initiation of our sets. Set up our offense on the weakside with Kobe in the low post and then pass the ball out and swing it around.
Speaking of Kobe, expect a bounce back game from Mr. Bean. Last night had Phil saying that Kobe “was not himself” and that was pretty obvious to anyone that watched the game. While Sefolosha deserves loads of credit for his defense, Kobe was not aggressive at all and only took 11 shots even though the Lakers were trailing almost from the outset. Kobe rarely has two bad games in a row and tonight he faces off against a rookie (Budinger) and a guy that he’s very familiar with (Ariza). Kobe can go to the post on either of these players and with no shot blocker roaming Houston’s paint, I expect him to try and live at the front of the rim this evening. The same of which could be said of Odom. If any player played half way decent last night it was LO. He should be able to build on that performance tonight against Houston. Much like the game against the Spurs, the Rockets don’t have a player that matches up with LO very well (especially now that Landry is gone) and Odom should be able to use his speed and quickness advantages to attack Scola in the open court, on dribble isolations, and in sneaking in for offensive rebounds.
On defense, we’re all familiar with Laker killer Aaron Brooks. Brooks sees Fisher and he (seemingly) thinks it’s time to set a new career high. That said, what people rarely talk about is how it takes effective team defense to slow a quick guard like Brooks that plays full speed and in attack mode for the entire game. Yes Fisher needs to shade Brooks better and keep him to one side of the floor as much as possible, but the Lakers’ bigs need to hedge better in P&R situations and rotate earlier on penetration because of Brooks’ speed and ability to close the gap between the three point line and the rim. Every time Brooks gets a head of steam to the rim, there should be a big man there to deter the drive or contest the shot. Every time. If one of Gasol, Odom, Powell, or Mbenga isn’t in the picture it’s a breakdown.
The other key Rocket to watch is Luis Scola. He’s been on a tear lately and has scored below 15 points only twice in all of March. Granted his minutes are up now that (other Laker killer) Carl Landry is gone, but he’s taking on the extra load and producing for Houston. The key to slowing Scola is to understand that he wants to go right. Luis’ right hand is like Odom’s left – you know that’s where he is going, you try to stop it, and he gets there anyway. His patented moves are his jump hook over his left shoulder and an up and under straight out of the Kevin McHale handbook. The Lakers defenders need to shade him to turn over his left shoulder and contest without fouling.
As I mentioned earlier, Houston will continue to fight throughout this game and will not give an inch. I mentioned Brooks and Scola, but Kylee Lowry is another bulldog off the Rockets bench that will attack every chance he gets. After last night’s debacle, the Lakers needs to come back strong to show that the OKC match up was only one game and come into this game determined to erase the memories of that wretched loss. On a side note, media and fans may try to turn this game into a battle of Artest vs. Ariza. Ignore it. Both of those players are on the teams they’re on now and while both guys are missed in both cities (Houston may not want to admit it, but before Kevin Martin came on board they could have used a versatile scorer like Ron that could create for himself or his mates while also providing strong, physical defense) but at this point everyone has moved on. It’s an easy story and that’s why it comes up, but in the end we’re already 70+ games into the year with both teams adjusting quite nicely with their acquisitions.
Where you can watch: 5:30pm start in the West on KCAL, also on ESPN Radio 710am.