Preview and Chat: The Houston Rockets

Darius Soriano —  March 20, 2012

Records: Lakers 28-17 (3rd in West), Rockets 24-22 (8th in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 103.9 (16th in NBA), Rockets 105.1 (10th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 101.3 (9th in NBA), Rockets 105.1 (17th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Steve Blake, Kobe Bryant, Matt Barnes, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Rockets: Goran Dragic, Courtney Lee, Chandler Parsons, Luis Scola, Samuel Dalembert
Injuries: Lakers: Metta World Peace (questionable); Rockets: Kyle Lowry (out), Kevin Martin (doubtful)

Center of Attention: Andrew Bynum’s been playing very well of late and the league took notice by naming him the Western Conference Player of the Week yesterday. Bynum’s averages in the five-game stretch from the Celtics to the Jazz game were 26 points and nearly 15 rebounds while shooting a shade over 61% from the floor. For the month of March, his averages are nearly as strong, scoring 24 a game with 13 rebounds, while shooting nearly 66% from the field and 75% from the FT line. With that level of production, it’s no wonder the Lakers have announced that they’ll pick up their team option on Bynum’s contract for next season, which will pay him $16.1 million.

(As an aside, if you look at Bynum’s averages for the season (18 points, 12.9 rebounds, 2 blocks, 57.8% shooting) and you run those numbers at Basketball-Reference, you come up with an interesting list of names that have put up the numbers that Bynum has if extrapolated out over a full season. When I lowered the rebound  threshold to a 12.5 average in this search, Bynum joined a list with these names: Abdul-Jabbar, Shaq, Gilmore, McHale, and Dwight Howard, and Amar’e. That’s it. That’s the list. Needless to say, Bynum’s having a fantastic year and for all the hand wringing about what he doesn’t do consistently or the fear about his health, he’s playing excellent basketball this season and deserves all the accolades he’s receiving.)

The Rockets Coming in: In their last six games, the Rockets are 3-3 with one quality win (over the Thunder) and one suspect loss (to the Cavs) in that stretch. Those last six contests are important because they represent the games that Kyle Lowry has missed since being diagnosed with a bacterial infection that will keep him out for at least a few more weeks. Adding to the Rockets injury woes is Kevin Martin’s absence with a strained right shoulder. Martin’s missed the last 4 games and is doubtful tonight. Martin’s had a below average year (by his standards), but with him and Lowry both out, the Rockets are down their starting back court and have had to make a go of it with reserves. And while Dragic and Lee have filled in admirably, it’s when they sit that the Rockets are being exposed as their third string players are then forced into action – especially third string PG Courtney Fortson . Over at Red 94, a review of Fortson’s play was explained as such:

Courtney Fortson has been pretty painful to watch in his two appearances thus far, and by that I mean that I teeter on the edge of cardiac arrest when he dribbles.

If the Rockets hope to make the playoffs (and from their perspective, that looks to be the plan as they traded bench players for Marcus Camby), they need to get healthy, and when those players do return they need them to play well. If that doesn’t happen, the odds of the Jazz or the fast closing Suns passing them in the standings are high.

Rockets Blogs: Red 94 is a very good site devoted to covering this team. Also check out The Dream Shake.

Keys to game: As is the case in most contests, the Lakers must look inside against a Rockets team that possesses adequate players, but not those the caliber that the Lakers offer up front. Dalembert, Camby, Scola, and Marcus Morris will be their primary big man rotation, and none of them are particularly good matchups for Bynum defensively (and all of them will also have various problems with Gasol). The last time these two teams met, Bynum had a 21 point, 22 rebound contest on 8-15 shooting while Gasol had 14 and 7 on 7-11 from the floor — and it’s not out of the question for the Laker bigs to put up similar numbers tonight should the touches come their way and their activity level persists at the level it’s been in recent games. The Laker wings must simply cooperate by seeking out their frontcourt mates early in the shot clock.

This isn’t to say that Kobe can’t get into the act. Courtney Lee will play Kobe tight and will use his quickness and athleticism to try and battle Kobe for position on the block, while also chasing him off screens. However, Kobe still has a size and strength advantage that should be exploited in post-up chances and in the open court in early offense. Kobe had a horrid shooting game on Sunday and he’ll surely be looking to bounce back with positive effort tonight. If he’s patient when he has the ball in this hands and works for position when he doesn’t, I’ve no doubts he can get similar shots to the ones he got against the Jazz — but with better results to follow.

Defensively, the key tonight is rebounding. Houston’s offensive rebound rate is very similar to that of the Lakers (they rank 14th to the Lakers 13th in the NBA) and all their big men are very good at keeping the ball alive by back tapping to their guards when the opportunity arises. Bynum and Gasol must be strong in attacking the defensive glass, secure the ball, and then look for their outlets quickly. With Fisher now out of the fold, both Blake and Sessions play at a quicker pace and both look to push the ball up court quickly to take advantage of run-outs by the wings. Barnes (who I have penciled in as the starter should Ron miss this game with his hip bursitis) has benefited the most from this uptick in chances for early offense, but Kobe has also been looking to run out more lately. However, before these guys leak out, the ball must be rebounded.

The other defensive key will be slowing the Rockets’ P&R attack. Dragic is quite crafty when running this action, doing a good job of diversifying his attack with the ball. He’s a capable finisher when turning the corner with a jumper or on the drive, and with Scola and Dalembert he has good options to pass to should the Lakers rotations not be on time. Scola is particularly adept at finding open space around the elbow to shoot his jumper, and while he hasn’t shot the ball as well this season he’s still a threat that must be honored. Camby and Dalembert can also knock down the mid-range J, so both Gasol and Bynum will need to be quick and smart with their rotations and not get caught retreating too far to the paint to guard against penetration. Of course they need to protect the rim, but that can’t come fully at the expense of not recovering, or else they will give up the open shot to guys who can knock it down.

After a tough loss on Sunday the Lakers need to get back on track tonight. Their road woes are real, but the schedule is not forgiving and if they want to keep their lead in the division (and the home-court advantage in the playoffs that comes with it), the Lakers need to win games like this one. The Rockets are down two of their better players and don’t have the big man depth or talent to battle with the Laker twin towers for 48 minutes. The bench will also need to step up and bring stronger performances than they have lately in support of the big three and there’s no better time for that to happen than this evening.

Where you can watch: 5:00PM start time on KCAL. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710AM.


Darius Soriano

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