Preview and Chat: The Houston Rockets

Darius Soriano —  April 6, 2012

Records: Lakers 35-20 (3rd in the West), Rockets 29-25 (7th in the West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 105.7 (11th in the NBA), Rockets 105.7 (11th in the NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 103.0 (10th in the NBA), Rockets 104.9 (15th in the NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Ramon Sessions, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Rockets: Goran Dragic, Courtney Lee, Chandler Parsons, Luis Scola, Marcus Camby
Injuries: Lakers: Jordan Hill (out); Rockets: Kyle Lowry (out), Kevin Martin (out)

Are the rotations set?: I’ve been someone that’s harped on the Lakers’ rotations for much of the season. I’ve wondered what the end game would be and whether or not Mike Brown would be able to settle on personnel groupings that he’d be comfortable going into battle with. Well, it seems like that’s finally the case as Brown has shortened his rotation to 8 players (or 9 if there’s foul trouble) and mixing and matching those guys together to piece together groups that can be effective.

The key has been that Brown is making it so two of his best four players are almost always on the floor at the same time, with one of Sessions and Kobe providing a threat from the perimeter and one of Bynum or Gasol anchoring the pivot. The result has been a much better balance of resources and better production across the entirety of the game. And while there are certainly some issues to work out – the small back court of Sessions and Blake has trouble guarding bigger shooting guards while the bigger back court of Barnes and Sessions (with Ron playing SF) has issues spacing the floor – this approach has been pretty effective.

If Brown can continue to tinker within this 8 man rotation and find ways to match up and make adjustments to the personnel the opposition throws at him, I think this is a plan that can work going into the post season. It will certainly lead to heavy minutes from the Lakers top 4 guys, but let’s be honest here – the Lakers will need to play those players heavy minutes anyway if they hope to advance deep into the post season.

The Rockets Coming in: There’s a desperation to the Rockets that’s palpable when you watch them play. They’re fighting for their playoff lives each and every game and while it may not always lead to a win, it certainly makes them competitive every time they take the floor. They’re only 5-5 in their last 10 games but in that stretch they’ve beaten the Lakers, Bulls, and Grizzlies (all teams that had been playing well).

As was the case the last time we saw them, the injury bug is still biting the Rockets as Kyle Lowry and Kevin Martin remain sidelined. But in their stead, others are stepping up – especially the trio of Goran Dragic, Courtney Lee, and Chandler Parsons. Over at TrueHoop, Henry Abbott has an interview posted with Dragic and he speaks of push for the playoffs and how (in reference to the the Bulls, Thunder, and Spurs) how they’ve played well against the best teams in the league:

I think all these great teams motivate us to play against all these great players. We play well against those teams. We have to play with that every game.

Well, tonight will offer another chance for them to get a win against a quality opponent and the Lakers should expect their best effort.

Rockets Blogs: Check out Red 94 for all your Rockets news and analysis. They really do a great job.

Keys to game: As noted above, the last time that these teams met the Rockets came back to win a game that the Lakers had in hand. Andrew Bynum got thrown out, the Sessions/P&R-centric attack turned into a Kobe/iso-centric one and with that the offense stalled and the Rockets seized momentum. If this game is to be different, the Lakers must play more like they did Wednesday against the Clippers by sticking with what works for longer during the game and playing to their advantages over this team.

Offensively that means going to Gasol (vs. Scola) and Bynum (vs Camby and Dalembert) often. This means featuring them in post ups but also using them as screeners in the P&R and making them defend Sessions (and Kobe) as ball handlers turning the corner and attacking them. None of those bigs have the swiftest of feet and while Camby and Dalembert can block shots, they’ll be leaving their man free to clean up misses if they engage smalls at the basket. So, get Pau and Drew involved in the action and force their man to make the hard choices that come with guarding such versatile bigs.

As for Kobe, he must work on the move and make his catches curling or cutting towards the basket. Too often in the last Rockets game he made his catches retreating to the three point line where he ended up trying to create offense from a stand still position in isolation. When Parsons defended him that meant Kobe was facing a taller, longer defender that also has good quickness by trying to beat him off the dribble 20 feet from the basket. Kobe’s a fantastic offensive player but asking him to do that too often isn’t a strategy worth repeating. Instead, Kobe needs to work tightly off screens and use his craftiness to work his way into positions where he’s 15 feet and in. He can also use multiple option actions to fake moving towards the elbow only to slip back door and get to the rim where he can open up for a quick pass for easy shots. Against the Clippers and the Warriors he was able to do this effectively and hopefully that can continue tonight against Lee and Parsons.

Defensively the Lakers’ number one priority is to slow Dragic in the P&R. Houston’s offense is predicated on him using that action to get into the lane and then either score for himself or move the ball on against the scrambling defense. So, hedging hard on him, making him a passer from non-threatening positions, and then using discipline in their rotations to contest shots will be key. Sessions will need to fight over screens and recover to Dragic quickly so that Pau and Drew can recover to their man and keep the integrity of the Lakers’ D. This is especially the case when Pau is guarding Scola since he loves to pick and pop into open space and either take his jumper or use the threat of it to attack off the dribble against a hard charging close out.

One other thing I’ll be watching is the battle of the benches. As mentioned at the top, the Lakers rotation has (seemingly) settled down and that means the play of Blake, Barnes, and McRoberts will become one of the more relevant keys to every game. Lately all three of those players have been playing to their strengths and that will need to continue tonight – especially since the Rockets will bring in players (Budinger, Patterson, Boykins, and Dalembert) that will test them with some scoring punch. The Lakers reserves needn’t try to match the point totals that the Rockets bench can bring, but rather must focus on defending, rebounding, and making the right play in front of them. If they can do that, they’ll be okay.

Where you can watch: 7:30PM start time on Fox Sports West. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710AM.

Darius Soriano

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