Preview and Chat: The Houston Rockets

Darius Soriano —  February 1, 2011

Records: Lakers 33-15 (2nd in West), Rockets 22-27 (11th in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 112.5 (2nd in NBA), Rockets (110.1 (5th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 105.1 (10th in NBA), Rockets 109.9 (24th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers:Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol
Rockets: Kyle Lowry, Kevin Martin, Shane Battier, Luis Scola, Chuck Hayes
Injuries: Lakers: Matt Barnes and Andrew Bynum (both out); Rockets:Yao Ming (out), Jared Jeffries & Courtney Lee & Brad Miller (all questionable)

The Lakers Coming in: Two straight losses (especially when one is to the Celtics) has a lot of fans panicking and has GM Mitch Kupchak talking about exploring trade options. My brief take on this is that a trade is doubtful for several reasons:

  • The Lakers have few trade-able assets that aren’t core players that the team doesn’t want to get rid of. I’m sure the Lakers are more than willing to explore trades of guys like Walton, Ebanks, and Caracter. And while Artest and Blake are guys that aren’t performing up to expectations right now, their contracts are problematic AND they’re guys that do have defined roles on the team. Brown and Barnes have low salaries and thus can’t fetch much back unless it’s an equally low paid player that the Lakers trust to play well. That leaves Bynum, Odom, Gasol, Fisher, and Kobe. Raise your hand if you think the Lakers would seriously consider trading any of those guys. (Note: my hand is still down.)
  • Money is still an issue for this team. Besides the Pau Gasol trade, the every Laker trade has been made to cut costs. Radman and Sasha were salary dumps. It’s very unlikely at this point that the team is willing to add to an already league high payroll.
  • Mitch Kupchak typically keeps things quiet. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t recall any leaks about the trades that brought in Gasol, Ariza, Shannon/Ammo, or Joe Smith. Mitch normally doesn’t let information out easily. The fact that he openly discussed the possibility of a trade actually leads me to believe a trade is less likely, not more.

That last point is the key one to me, though. Kupchak’scomments that a shake up may be in order centered entirely around the performance of the current group. His comments included several references to the team having enough talent and that it’s currently under-performing. That sounds like a man that’s telling his team to get in gear, not one that’s planning a big move. I could be wrong, obviously. But the public nature of this discussion andthe fact that the core players (i.e. players with trade value) are guys the team wants to keep has me thinking no deal is eminent. We’ll see though.

The other major news of the day is that Andrew Bynum has been ruled out of tonight’s game. An MRI exam showed a bone bruise on his left knee andif you noticed him limping or sporting some tape aroundthat leg during the Boston game, that’s why. (As an aside, the right knee is the one with the brace and the one that he had off-season surgery on.) After yesterday’s practice, Phil relayed the fact that Drew hoped to play tonight, but alas he’s been ruled out. I know that the words “Bynum” “hurt” and “knee” often cause panic, but based off reports this isn’t serious. Hopefully he’ll be back by Thursday to face the Spurs. We’ll get you updates as we get them. 

The Rockets Coming in: Honestly, this team has been flying under the radar for me of late. When you look at their schedule, they’re 2-4 in their last 6, but in that stretch they faced Orlando, Dallas, and San Antonio. All of those teams are better than Houston so losses aren’t that big a concern. They’re currently 4 games out of the 8th spot in the playoffs and unless they make a big push after the all-star break, this team may find itself out of the post-season.

One difference of late, though, is that the Rockets have been starting Kyle Lowryat PG rather than Aaron Brooks. For a while that was injury related as Brooks missed many games with a badly sprained ankle. However, upon his return, he’s been relegated to reserve status as the team has preferred Kyle Lowry’s defense and ability to attack off the dribble to Brooks’ long range bombing and lack of D. With the Rocketson the bottom quarter of the league in defensive efficiency, I can understand why.

Rockets Blogs: A few quality spots to get Rockets news and analysis. Red94 is one such site. As is The Dream Shake.

Keys to game: With Bynum out, the Lakers are going back to their LO/Gasol frontline and that means a bit of a different approach on offense. We’re likely a shift from Kobe to Lamar as intitiator in the Lakers’ two guard front of the Triangle. Kobe will probably play much more on the wing andat the weak side elbow with Lamar making the initial pass into the corner or the hub of the Triangle to get the Lakers’ actions going.

This means that the Lakers’ attack will change some as rather than Kobe doing a lot of his work off the dribble, he’ll be off the ball more. Hopefully this creates better ball and player movement for the team and allows others to “activate” themselves in the Lakers’ sets. This also means that Pau will move off the wing and elbow and more into the low post for longer stretches this game. Going up against Chuck Hayes is never a picnic for Pau as Hayes’ low center of gravity and quick feet allows him to push Gasol out further than he’d like on his catches and makes backing down to earn position harder. However, if the Lakers can get Pau to make his catch on the move and coming to the ball, I think tonight can be a night where Pau gets good shots inside using his jump hook (a shot that has been too absent from his arsenal in the past several weeks).

Defensively, the Lakers must be disciplined and understand that they’re in store for a lot of cuts, screens, and misdirection tonight. Rick Adelman’s preference for the Princeton offense means a lot of high post entries to big men with wings like Martin, Battier, and Budinger screening and cutting off those picks to either fade to the corner for open shots or cut hard back door for layups. Every Laker must be aware of what’s going on and communication on D will be crucial to the team’s success in defending these actions.

From an individual standpoint, the Rockets O tries to feature the efficient Kevin Martin on the wing and the crafty Luis Scola on the block. Controlling Martin is always tricky because he moves well off the ball to free himself up for his jumper but also uses the threat of that J to drive the ball hard into contact andearn trips to the foul line. As evidence of this he’s on track to becoming a player that can lead the league in both 3’s and FT’s made which is quite the feat.  So the Lakers must effectively trail him off screens to deny his jumper (you know, the opposite of how they treated Ray Allen) and with the big man supporting that action by stepping up early to deny penetration while giving the wing defender a chance to recover. As for Scola, he’s a very good post scorer but please don’t let him go to his right hand. Every fake, pivot, spin, and step through is designed for him to get back to his right hand for a jump hook or scoop shot. Force him to turn over his right shoulder, sit on his right hand, and you’ve completed 75% of the job.

This isn’t panic time but tonight is a game the Lakers need to win. Even though Phil was in a joking mood after yesterday’s practice, he mentioned that the Lakersneed to do a better job of protecting their home court while also beating the teams that aren’t currently in the playoff mix. Tonight’s opponent fits the bill on both counts. The Lakers surely don’t want to go into Thursday’s game vs. the Spurs on a 3 game skid. Let’s get this win.

Where you can watch: 7:30pm start on Fox Sports West. Also listen live on ESPN Radio 710am.

Darius Soriano

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