Preview and Chat: The Houston Rockets

Darius Soriano —  November 18, 2012

Records: Lakers 4-5 (T 9th in the West), Rockets 4-5 (T 9th in the West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 106.6 (9th in the NBA), Rockets 104.2 (13th in the NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 101.9 (12th in the NBA), Rockets 103.6 (16th in the NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Darius Morris, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard
Rockets: Jeremy Lin, James Harden, Chandler Parsons, Patrick Patterson, Omer Asik
Injuries: Lakers: Steve Nash (out), Steve Blake (doubtful); Rockets: Royce White (out), Carlos Delfino (questionable)

The Lakers Coming in: Will the Lakers see Mike D’Antoni on their sideline tonight? That’s the plan, but word from practice says it’s still only a 50/50 proposition:

Even if D’Antoni doesn’t “coach” the hope is that the Lakers can continue to build on their offensive performance from Friday’s win over the Suns. In that contest the Lakers turned up their tempo, ran some good P&R actions in the half court, and played a lot of weak side basketball that enabled their wing and post players to operate in space off the dribble. These are principles that play to the talents of the Lakers’ roster (especially those of Kobe and Dwight Howard) and should allow them to play a lot of one on one basketball while also making their reads on passes very easy should help come.

UPDATE: Mike D’Antoni will not coach tonight so we get a second weekend at Bernie’s. Reports state that Lakers’ trainer Gary Vitti convinced D’Antoni to sit this one out. It’s looking like Tuesday or Wednesday may be when we see Mike D.

The Rockets Coming in: If it weren’t for the Lakers and the news they’ve made to begin this season, the biggest story of this young campaign would have to be the Rockets trade for James Harden. In acquiring Harden the Rockets got the franchise player they’ve sought for so many years and got him while his career is still ascending. Harden has rewarded the Rockets with several huge scoring outbursts while carrying the load offensively. His efficiency isn’t quite what it was in OKC, but considering his usage has been kicked up several notches that’s somewhat expected.

Harden joins several other signings that make the Rockets a nearly entirely new team. Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik were key free agent signings, effectively replacing Goran Dragic and Luis Scola from last year’s team. Lin hasn’t quite recaptured the magic he showed in New York (his shooting numbers are way down) but he’s proven to be a nice compliment to Harden as a ball handler, off the ball worker, and secondary pick and roll threat. As for Asik, he’s brought high level defense with him from Chicago and a better offensive game (especially as a roll man in the P&R) than he showed with the Bulls.

All in all, the new additions have given the Rockets a nice boost even though they’re still a fringe playoff team at best. The Rockets have a fair amount of young talent (besides the trio mentioned, Chandler Parsons and Patrick Patterson are nice players) but with youth comes inexperience and that will translate to lots of ups and downs. Still, the future looks bright in Houston, especially if some of their other young players can even find a niche in the lineup under Kevin McHale (who has an aversion to playing rookies).

Keys to game: From the standpoint of individual match ups, this game offers a few good ones.

First off, there’s Kobe vs. James Harden. There’s a bit of a budding rivalry here and with both boasting explosive scoring numbers, don’t be surprised to see both go off for a nice number tonight. However, I also wouldn’t be surprised if neither spend a lot of time guarding the other as Ron typically takes the other team’s best wing scorer and Chandler Parsons did a good job of guarding Kobe last season. Even if that’s the case, though, it will be fun to see the West’s two best shooting guards (no disrespect to Manu Ginobili) square off tonight.

The other match up I’m really looking forward to is Dwight Howard vs. Omer Asik. The former Bull is one of the best defensive big men in the league, performing well in all aspects of paint protection be it straight up post play or hedging/recovering in the P&R. Dwight will have his hands full in trying to score down low against Asik and would do well to try and beat him early in possessions via quick duck-ins rather than banging on him from 15 feet and out to try and establish the post.

Taking a more team centric view, the Lakers’ offense needs to work in the creases of a Rocket defense that tends to hunt steals (10th in the league) and can be taken advantage of when they gamble too much. Ball and player movement are essential against this type of D, so the Lakers need to pass, screen, and cut with purpose to keep defenders occupied and not just playing the passing lanes.

I’d also expect to see some more post up actions for Ron and Pau should the match ups hold with Parsons on Kobe and Asik on Dwight. Sure, the Lakers can run P&R’s and that will create the type of movement the team needs but after that initial action I wouldn’t be surprised to see Pau and Ron sneak into the post from the weak side and try to get the type of position that can lead to good shots.

Defensively, the Lakers must be ready to play the P&R as they’ll see a steady diet of it tonight. Both Harden and Lin rely on this action a great deal to try and get into the paint and create shots at the rim or earn trips to the foul line. Harden is especially adept at showing defenders the ball and encouraging them to reach in, only to take the ball away and swing through the contact to earn a whistle. Defenders must show discipline on his drives by keeping their hands high and contesting at the top of his release rather than swiping at the ball when it’s low.

When defending the P&R, the Lakers must also be aware of what’s happening off the ball. The Rockets love to set up a weak side screen action where the wing operating away from the ball drifts off a back pick to spot up for a three point shot after the D gets sucked in watching the ball on the strong side. Harden (especially) and Lin can both throw a skip pass over the top to Parsons and Delfino who will spot up away from the ball and just wait for that looping pass to fall into their hands where they’re ready to fire an open jumper. Rotations must be sharp and guys mustn’t get caught watching the ball to the point that they’re easily picked off and giving up jumpers (I’m looking at you, Kobe).

Their are two other keys to watch tonight. First is the tempo of the game. The Rockets play at the 7th fastest pace in the league and will use their wave of young legs to push the ball at every opportunity. The Lakers must be aware of this by keeping a balanced floor on offense and run back quickly to deny easy shots. The Lakers also want to run so tonight could quickly become a track meet so stamina (especially for the older Lakers) is something to keep an eye on.

Second, is the offensive rebounding of both sides. The Lakers must still play to their strengths by crashing their O-glass but must be careful not to have too many players chasing the ball rather than getting back. The Rockets will give up some O-boards, but when they do clean their glass they want to run so the Lakers need to balance their pursuit of second chance points with giving up easy shots going the other way. The Lakers must also protect their own defensive glass as the Rockets are 7th in offensive rebounding rate and must be boxed out. This is especially key when the Lakers’ bigs help on penetration. Wings need to help the helpers and sink to the paint to rebound.

Where you can watch: 6:30pm start on TWC Sports Net. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710AM.

Darius Soriano

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