Preview and Chat: The Houston Rockets

Darius Soriano —  April 17, 2013

Records: Lakers 44-37 (8th in the West), Rockets 45-36 (7th in the West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 105.7 (8th in the NBA), Rockets 106.9 (6th in the NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 103.7 (T 18th in the NBA), Rockets 103.6 (T 16th in the NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Steve Blake, Jodie Meeks, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard
Rockets: Jeremy Lin, James Harden, Chandler Parsons, Greg Smith, Omer Asik
Injuries: Lakers: Kobe Bryant (out for the season), Steve Nash (out), Jordan Hill (out); Rockets: none

Rockets Blogs: Red 94 is a very good site dedicated to covering this team. Check them out.

Talking Points: This is it. The Lakers’ season has come down to a single game. Win, and they’re into the playoffs — and at the 7th seed. Lose, and, well, let’s not even discuss that. This is the Lakers’ chance to achieve what they’ve seeking for what seems like months. They want into the playoffs and this game is their boarding pass. They simply must grab it.

However, the Rockets offer all sorts of problems for the Lakers’ team. First, they’re fast and athletic. They play the league’s quickest pace and thrive on creating a tempo that teams who aren’t used to playing that way have trouble managing. Second, they’re a high volume three point shooting team that loves to create shots out of dribble penetration. Third, they’re one of the most explosive offensive teams in the league. Considering the Lakers have issues with defending in transition and against dribble penetration, the Rockets offer a pretty good foil.

For the Lakers to win this game, then, the goal is to slow the tempo of the game down and focus on the things the Rockets don’t do well. Like the Lakers, Houston struggles to defend. And, in trading away two-thirds of their power forward rotation away at the trade deadline, one of their bigger weaknesses comes inside. Yes, they have defensive stalwart Omer Asik manning the middle. He’s an ox inside and is very good at pushing defenders off their spot and using a combination of angles, smarts, and strength to limit their effectiveness. That said, he’s only one guy. After him the Rockets will rely on a combination of Craig Smith, Cole Aldrich, Terrence Jones and Dontas Motiejunas inside. Not to discredit those guys, but they’re not as good on defense as Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard are on offense. The plan should be to attack inside and make the Rockets defend  inside.

Straight post ups will do fine, but some creativity will be needed as well. Big to big actions both in the form of high-lows and block to block exchanges are both good strategies. Get Pau and Dwight on the move into the post and let them attack against a defender that isn’t fully set. That will force perimeter defenders to help down and should open up shots for the Lakers’ wing players. Shots that will need to be knocked down.

This is where Blake, Meeks, Ron, Clark, and Jamison will be needed. All are capable of hitting the long ball and will need to keep the defense honest by doing so. Ron, Clark, and Jamison will also be needed in slipping into the cracks of the defense via cuts and dives to work the interior when Dwight and Pau post up. The Rockets’ defenders will be extra attentive to what happens on the block and that’s when smart cuts will be needed to take advantage. If the Lakers’ forwards can get some easy baskets inside to complement what their big men are doing, the Lakers can further control the tempo and keep the game at a reasonable pace. Also look for Blake to try and create out of the P&R, if not just shots for himself, but for his teammates by getting deep into the paint and drawing enough attention that opportunities are created for others.

As mentioned above, slowing the Rockets will be difficult and even if the Lakers are good at keeping them out of the open court (which is by no means easy), they’ll still need to defend well in the half court to have any chance of winning this game. Against the Spurs the Lakers did a much better job of being disciplined in the half court, making sharp rotations and funneling penetration to their big men. Against the Rockets that same effort will be needed as they are primarily a P&R and drive and kick team  that relies on over helping and then attacking of sloppy closeouts. This is especially true of Harden and Lin who are not just crafty with the ball but very good finishers from all over the floor.

Keeping those two out of the paint isn’t going to be easy. In fact, it will be nearly impossible. So, what I’d prefer to see is for their defenders to simply keep them to one side and shade them into help. Harden is going to get left, but the goal should be to keep him left and not let him Euro-step his way across the defender’s body where he can create contact and still finish. Slide with him on his hip and force him to finish over the top of the contest from the helping big. If he gets fully by his man, the defense is toast. The same is true of Lin, only he’s going to go to his right hand rather than his left. Once the ball is penetrated the other big man must be in position to help on the glass and to challenge any shot that comes should the ball handler dump the ball off. If the Lakers’ help is sharp, they can limit the damage. If it’s not, well…it will be a long night.

The goal tonight is to win regardless of what any of the other teams are doing around the league. The Jazz face the Grizzlies in Memphis and should the home team win, the Lakers are into the post season no matter what happens at Staples Center. That said, a win tonight represents a move up from eighth into seventh and a date with the Spurs. No disrespect meant to them, but facing them rather than the Thunder is the best case scenario for the Lakers. Not because the Spurs aren’t a great team, but because the Thunder are the best team in the bracket. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves.

Tonight is about one thing only — beating the Rockets. Do that and everything else takes care of itself. It won’t be easy, but what in this season has been? This is the last battle of the regular season, the Lakers need all hands on deck to grind it out for one more game.

Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time on TWC Sportsnet and ESPN. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.

Darius Soriano

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