Preview & Chat: The Houston Rockets

Darius Soriano —  January 3, 2012

Records: Lakers 3-3 (6th in the West), Rockets: 2-2 (7th in the West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 102.2 (16th in NBA), Rockets: 106.2 (10th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 97.4 (5th in NBA), Rockets: 105.7 (22nd in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Matt Barnes, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Rockets: Kyle Lowry, Kevin Martin, Chase Budinger, Luis Scola, Jordan Hill
Injuries: Lakers: Derrick Caracter (out), Josh McRoberts (questionable); Rockets: none

The Lakers Coming in: The Lakers are coming off a loss but the topic of the day is Kobe’s shooting, naturally. The internet is saying he shoots too much and Kobe fires back with “I do what I do” and everyone sighs in disbelief.

However, as we discussed yesterday, this is to be expected. Kobe’s a scorer and he’s gone his entire career seeking shots that he thinks he can make (and doing it to the tune of 28,000+ career points). If people thought he was going to say anything besides what he did, they were fooling themselves. Kobe’s going to have the ball in his hands and that means he’s going to have opportunities to score. His big men can’t be ignored, but so far this season, they haven’t been. Note that Gasol’s usage rate is hovering right where it’s been during his entire tenure with the Lakers (21.4 this year) and that Bynum’s has made a dramatic leap to 30.8 (last season it was 17.6, the year before 20.8). A balance will need to be struck and I think everyone recognizes that fact. But, again, Kobe’s the primary creator of shots from the perimeter for this team and finding that balance will take time, especially when taking into account Bynum’s growth and reintegration into the line up.

Lastly, and for what it’s worth, I don’t really care about how often Kobe shoots, per se. I worry about the offense getting bogged down. I worry about whether or not he’s doing enough of the other things he needs to do to help the offense hum on any given night. Kobe’s not wrong when he says he should be taking the open shots made available to him. He’s Kobe Bryant, one of the best, most natural scorers the game has ever seen. However, I’ll always maintain that regardless of whether or not his shot is falling (but especially if it’s not) he needs to continue to look for his teammates and continue to work the offense to produce good looks at the basket. If those shots are taken by him, fine. If they’re taken by a teammate, that works too. The way I see it, the better the look, the better the chance the basket goes in. And considering the Lakers are 16th in offensive efficiency, they need more of those shots to go in. That’s not all on Kobe, either.

The Rockets Coming in: The Rockets sit at 2-2 and offer a balanced attack with several above average players who consistently play to their strengths. However, when looking at their roster, it’s easy to see why they were the 3rd team in the Lakers/NOLA failed trade that would have finally brought them a centerpiece player in Pau Gasol (and the cap space to chase Nene). Martin, Scola, and Lowry are a fine trio of players who bring efficiency, hard work, and dogged determination to their craft. Lowry currently leads the league in assists and plays hard nosed defense. Scola offers a crafty post-centric offensive game and maximum effort at all times. And Martin is the poster boy of offensive efficiency, generating points via FTs and uncontested jumpers that every team would like to have.

With this group though, what you see is what you get. There’s little potential for that otherworldly performance that can carry a franchise when multiple players have an off night. There’s not a superstar who can cover up the faults of multiple teammates simply through the strength of his individual brilliance. The Rockets win playing team ball and by everyone doing their part in that given game. For years they’ve added good talent and worked the edges of their roster looking to add that one piece that could change their franchise. It hasn’t happened yet. And until it does, they’ll be a consistently tough out, but not one of the leagues elite teams.

That said, there have been some changes worth noting. Rick Adelman has been replaced by Kevin McHale. After the aforementioned 3 way trade was nixed, the Rockets signed Sammy Dalembert as a backup big to replace the departed Chuck Hayes. And with a slew of young assets that could be contributors on countless teams across the league, I doubt this team is done making moves.

Rockets Blogs: Red 94 is a great site you should check out for Rockets news and notes. Also give a visit to The Dream Shake.

Keys to game: The keys to this game are simple: offensively, attack the back line of the Rockets’ defense and make them protect the paint. Yao Ming is long gone. Chuck Hayes, one of the league’s best post and positional defenders – is now a King. Luis Scola and Jordan Hill will offer little resistance on post ups by the Laker twin towers or on drives by Kobe should he be able to shake his man. That last statement is important because against the Nuggets, Kobe was not able to shake free from Afflalo consistently nor get by a sagging, 6-10 Gallinari off the bounce. However, tonight Kobe faces lesser quality defenders in either Kevin Martin or Chase Budinger. Chase is the better defender (he’s bigger and more athletic) but he’s not in this league because he’s a stopper on the wing. This is a game where Kobe should be able to attack and either get shots for himself or his teammates – and do so in the paint – much easier than against the Nuggets.

Defensively, the Lakers must be prepared to deal with another young and improved point guard. Kyle Lowry is a strong bulldog of a guard who has no qualms pushing the ball up the court and making the opponent stop him. He can get to the rim or hit the outside jumper. He’s struggled with his shot some this year, but as mentioned earlier, he’s leading the league in assists and doing everything he can to lead his team. The Lakers must be ready for Lowry to attack both Fisher and Steve Blake off the bounce and show help when needed, but not get so far out of position that they leave players wide open as Lowry will find them.

The other key offensive threats are Martin and Scola. Martin is a natural at moving off the ball and working screens to free himself up where he can either stroke his unorthodox jumper or attack off the dribble to earn trips to the foul line. This is where the Lakers need to be extra aware because Martin often seeks contact and would sometimes rather take a hit than look for a better shot to take. He’s more than content to go to the line for two FTs, so the D must not overreact to him by reaching in or trying to body him too much. Instead, the Lakers must look to challenge passes when he comes off picks,  closing out on him under control to make him create a shot using more than one dribble, and then contest that shot without fouling. Due to his constant movement, I would not be surprised to see Barnes start on him so as to not wear Kobe out chasing him around all those picks.

In containing Scola, the Lakers must force him left and not fall for his constant feints and fakes. Scola is a master of deception on the block, often working the right block, faking middle, and then spinning back over his left shoulder to attack with his right hand. He’ll head and shoulder fake, hook with his off arm, and use every savvy trick in the book to get back to his right hand. The Lakers must simply be patient and make him go the other direction. Scola’s also quite dangerous in pick and pop situations, so the Lakers must do a good job of recovering to the screen man when he pops to the perimeter rather than diving hard to the rim. L.A. had trouble with this action when Denver ran the Lawson/Harrington P&R with Al popping back to shoot his jumper, so here’s hoping there’s some improvement in that area tonight against a fine jumpshooting big like Luis.

The other area where the Lakers can do some serious damage is on the offensive glass. Houston is 11th in defensive rebound rate while the Lakers rank 10th in offensive rebound rate. However, those numbers include 4 games without Bynum, who has done tremendous work on the offensive glass in the two games he’s played. If Pau and Bynum can use their size advantage to not only get deep post position but also clean up their teammates’ misses, the game could swing severely in the Lakers’ favor.

Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time on Fox Sports and NBA TV. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710AM.

Darius Soriano

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