The Lakers continue their road trip tonight, not yet fortunate enough to escape Texas after being blasted by the Mavs on Tuesday. No, they stay in the lonestar state to do battle with the Houston Rockets who have a ton of talent and expectations to match. So as the Lakers look to find an identity with a group of players who are either aging, hurt, inexperienced, unproven, or combinations of several, the Rockets have their identity in place. They are a powerhouse team with talent one through eight who wants to play fast, get layups or threes, and control the paint on both ends of the floor.
The story to this game isn’t really about those things, though. At least not really. Because while we can focus on the ascension of the Rockets and the decline of the Lakers, all that really does is bring us back to what everyone will want to focus on tonight: Dwight Howard. It’s through Dwight in which every other story travels. The flip in fortunes this season? Dwight. The difference in defensive ability of both teams? Dwight. The fact one team is a favorite and one is predicted to barely make the playoffs (if at all)? Dwight.
It’s more complex than that, of course. This version of the Rockets exists due to years of planning. James Harden was traded for with resources over time via smart drafting and deft trading. Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik are on this team due to smart cap management and savvy exploitation of existing contract structure rules. The roles players added this past season are the icing on a cake fully prepared this past summer and the ones before it. Many of these details are exactly why the Rockets have Dwight. They built this team through a combination of skill, good timing, and some luck. For what it’s worth, the Lakers will do the same over the next several years.
But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. There’s a game to play tonight and going about winning that game will be a tall task.
The Lakers are a team that relies on role players to play above their career norms to be successful. Take Xavier Henry as an example. When he plays well – scoring points, drawing fouls, playing strong wing defense – the Lakers are hard to beat. Add to him a nice game from a Steve Blake or a Jordan Farmar and the Lakers become even tougher. If Wes Johnson steps up and Meeks makes shots, this team is quite tough. If it all happens in one night, you have the Clipper game. Those things rarely happen in on the same night, though. And when all those things go the opposite, you get a bad loss.
The latter is more prone to happen on the road. Why? Because role players play worse on the road. Throw out whatever theory you want, but it’s the truth. Shooting percentages drop, effort wanes, and the results suffer. Tonight, of course, the Lakers are on the road. So a simple way to get a win is for those role players to find a way to up their games in an environment that they typically wouldn’t.
The more complicated explanation is the strategy and X’s and O’s that go into that. The Rockets are a big team and play a lineup – at least with their starters – that the Lakers must try to match up with. Head coach Kevin McHale plays Dwight and Asik together a lot and that is a recipe for controlling the defensive paint while also working very hard on the offensive glass. The Lakers can try to counter with Shawne Williams and that may work in stretches, but he will have trouble keeping Asik off the glass and will not challenge on the offensive glass the way that Kaman or Jordan Hill would. Whether D’Antoni adjusts his lineup to put Hill or Kaman in with the starters remains to be seen, but don’t rule it out.
I also wouldn’t rule out moving Steve Blake out of the starting group. Blake has had issues defending SG’s or SF’s with size and skill. Tonight, the Rockets will throw James Harden and Chandler Parsons at the Lakers’ wings and slowing them down will take more size and athleticism than Blake can offer. It may be more than any combination of wings the Lakers can offer, but that’s another story. So, I wouldn’t be surprised if Nick Young or Wes Johnson replaces Blake and allows the team to better match up with the lineups the Rox deploy.
From a scheme standpoint, the Lakers must be prepared for what will be a straightforward game plan by the Rockets. They want to shoot in the paint or from behind the arc while limiting their opponents from doing the same thing. Look for Harden, Parsons, Lin, and Beverly to either hoist threes or attack off the dribble to get shots at the rim. Look for Dwight and Asik to roll hard out of every pick and roll and then camp near the paint for offensive rebound chances if they don’t get the initial shot. In order to defend this style the Lakers must pack the paint on initial actions and then recover to contest shots from behind the arc. In an ideal world, a Rockets possession would look like this: penetration is thwarted, the ball is kicked out, a Lakers’ defender closes out on the shooter to force the man to put the ball on the floor and then help comes immediately to force the ball handler to either take a mid-range jumper or to pass the ball out. If the ball is passed, the Lakers would repeat what they just did defensively until they force a miss and grab a rebound or force a shot clock violation.
Again, that’s ideal. I don’t expect that much, but it’s what the team should be trying to execute.
Offensively, the Lakers must find ways to penetrate the paint and threaten the defense enough create good shots all over the floor. Whether that’s through their own P&R actions, through post ups into Pau or Kaman, or through dribble penetration, it must come. Collapsing the D should create enough open shots from the wing to give the Lakers a chance to hang around in this game should they hit them. This will require guys like Blake, Meeks, Johnson, Williams, Young, and Nash to score well. Maybe that’s too much to ask, but it’s what is needed to make this a game.
And, ultimately, that’s what the Lakers should hope for. “Winning” is the goal, of course. But keeping the game close enough where they can deploy the right strategies in the final minutes is the most realistic goal they can actually hope for. A 5 point game with 3 minutes left may lead to hack a Dwight (or Asik). It could lead to a more focused few minutes of offensive and defensive possessions that go the Lakers’ way. It could lead to a Rockets’ meltdown of possessions that don’t produce quality looks. The variables are many and that’s what the Lakers need to play for. Make it a close game where down the stretch any number of things can turn the game. In other words, don’t let the game turn into what it did with the Mavs where it’s over by the half.
Whether the team has this in them is questionable at best. The road game, the Dwight factor, and the difference in quality between the rosters heading in all tilt the Rockets’ way. We’ll see if the Lakers can surprise us like they did on opening night, though.
Where you can watch: 6:30pm start on TNT. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.