Our long, long wait is over. Basketball is back, opening night is here, and the Lakers are headlining the night as they face off against the Rockets. Banner #16 will be raised and big diamonds will be passed out to all the players as a reminder of what last year’s team accomplished and as a reinforcement for what this year’s team chases. The quest for a third straight title begins tonight and I’m absolutely giddy.
So as those long term goals are crystallized with all the pregame pageantry, the short term goal is to get a win tonight to start the season off on the right foot. And in order to accomplish that, the Lakers must come out of the gate firing on all cylinders and maintain their focus on what can be, admittedly, a pretty distracting night. I have a feeling, though, that the Rockets are just the team to keep the Lakers’ attention tonight. They are one of the few teams that have played the Lakers tough in the past three seasons regardless of the make up of their roster and tonight they bring in a fully healthy team for the first time in what seems like ages. If the Lakers are to get the win tonight, it will take a great effort and strong execution.
And it starts on defense. The Rockets will have Yao Ming back in the line up and so things must start with him. Regardless of his minutes restriction, Yao is the focal point of the Rockets offense and slowing Houston down on that side of the ball means containing their great Center. First and foremost that means testing the limits for how recovered Yao is and what type of shape he’s in. This entails battling him for position, racing with him in the open court, and challenging his every motion around the floor. By making the big man work the Lakers get to test Yao’s endurance (never one of his strongest traits) and see how much polish he has in his first game action in well over a year. As usual, Yao’s favorite spot is the left low block where he has a great turn around jumper to the baseline, a turn and face jumper, or a very good strong drive to the middle with is dominant hand. As mentioned, the key is to push him out on the floor to make him have to initiate his moves from 16-18 feet in order to minimize his effectiveness.
The other key weapon for the Rockets is Kevin Martin. The perpetual motion man is back healthy to start this campaign and slowing down his well rounded offensive game will be a must for whichever Lakers’ defender matches up with him. I expect Ron Artest to get the first shot at Martin, with Barnes and Kobe also taking turns on the slender shooting guard. The key to slowing him down, though, will be chasing him around the litany of screens that he’ll use to get open and then being disciplined in closing out so as to not give up too many uncontested jumpers. All while still being able to guard against his forays into the paint where he loves to draw fouls. No one said it would be easy.
Offensively, the Lakers must use their advantages where they exist. And while that typically lies with Kobe Bryant, that’s not the case with #24 not yet 100%. And when you combine Kobe not yet all the way healthy with the Rockets throwing out Shane Battier and crew to slow him down, the Lakers may want to explore other options. So, I hope to see the team go into Pau early and often. Gasol has a quickness advantage against Yao and can work on him from either the high post or short wing in isolation situations by facing up and shooting his jumper or driving by him if Yao plays too closely. Plus, Pau’s passing acumen is well documented, so he will create easy shots for his mates if the Rockets get too aggressive with double teams or if they shade defenders in his direction.
The other player that I hope gets involved early is Ron Artest. Ron has had a very good pre-season and his jumper looks better than it did at any point last season. When you couple that with his better understanding of the offense, I think Ron can have a successful night by being aggressive on both the wing and in the post against either Kevin Martin or Shane Battier. I especially think Ron can be effective on the block when Yao is out and the Rockets either play Brad Miller or Chuck Hayes at back up Center. Neither of these players are shot blockers so Ron will not have to worry about weak side defenders crashing down on him when he seals his man. If the Lakers can successfully move the ball from the wing to the top of the key when Ron is in the post, he should be plenty of chances to finish right at the front of the rim against defenders that can’t match his physicality.
Moving off the individual match ups and on the team level, two factors will be critical tonight if the Lakers want to start the season one and oh. First is containing dribble penetration. I have not yet mentioned Aaron Brooks, but he’s a player that has given the Lakers fits over the past few seasons. As we’ve discussed many times in the past, though, slowing a player like Brooks is a shared responsibility and does not just fall on the shoulders of Fisher and/or Blake. The Lakers big men must sprint back in transition and show/recover on the pick and roll in order to cut down driving lanes. Fisher and Blake must also guide Brooks to where the help is and give him different looks coming off screens in order to disrupt his rhythm when coming off picks. The second key to the game is controlling the pace. I’ve mentioned Brooks, but the Lakers should try to give the Rockets some of their own medicine by pushing the ball back at them and making their big men run. Neither Yao or Scola (or back up big Miller) have good wheels, whereas Odom and Gasol do. Tonight would be an excellent game for Odom to be aggressive changing ends after securing defensive rebounds by pushing the ball and looking for running mates. If Pau gets out and runs, he could send Yao to the bench winded, in foul trouble (or both) and the Lakers go back to having the size AND speed advantage that they held over the Rockets last season.
All that said, this game is more about just getting the win. As I mentioned earlier, tonight is one of the best nights of the year (opening night) especially for a Lakers fan. Watching the banner go up and seeing the faces of the players as they collect their rings will be special. So, set your DVR’s and cherish this moment. Only one franchise is doing what the Lakers are tonight, so enjoy it.
Where you can watch: 7:30PM start in the West on TNT (which, I hope starts on time). Also listen live on ESPN Radio 710am. UPDATE – To be safe, I’d tune in around 7pm to see if you can catch the rign ceremony.