Preview and Chat: Lakers vs. Rockets

Darius Soriano —  February 19, 2014

UPDATE: Well, the first trade domino has fallen. Steve Blake has been traded to the Warriors for Marshon Brooks and Kent Bazemore, per Ken Berger of CBS Sports.

I’ll have more on this later, but my first thought is that I will miss Blake’s competitiveness and how he carried himself on and off the court. The man played hard all the time and always talked about his play within the context of the team, rather than his individual successes or failures. Winning teams need players like him and I think he’ll do well in Golden State — a team that sorely needs another capable ball handler and a guy who can play behind and next to Steph Curry in the backcourt. I wish nothing but the best to Blake and his family moving forward and wouldn’t mind it if he found his way back to Los Angeles next year to rejoin the team (whether that is likely or not, I’ve no clue).

After a much needed break for All-Star weekend, the Lakers are back in action tonight facing off against the Houston Rockets. For all the time off, however, the Lakers will still be shorthanded tonight as Pau Gasol will sit out due to continued issues with his groin strain along with Steve Nash also not available due to his nerve-root irritation (and an upper respiratory infection.

The team will have Jodie Meeks back, though, and he will be joined by Jordan Farmar who will also return from his strained hamstring. Meeks will be available for his normal minutes load, but Mike D’Antoni would like to limit Farmar to 20 minutes (or less) as he works his way back into the rotation. That leaves a starting lineup of Marshall, Blake, Wes Johnson, Ryan Kelly, and Kaman and a bench of Farmar, Hill, Meeks, and Sacre. It’s funny how nine players dressing seems like a lot these days, but that’s where we are with the Lakers.

The other news around the Lakers, of course, is the potential for the players they do have to soon be playing for other teams. With the trade deadline quickly approaching, the Lakers are said to be discussing multiple options with several of their front court players, including deals that would send Hill, Kaman, and even Gasol to new teams for either salary cap relief, draft picks, or both/neither. Teams the Lakers are supposedly talking with are the Hawks (injured player exception for Al Horford), the Nets (ditto, but for Brook Lopez), the Cavs, and the Suns.

For what it’s worth, I’d support trades of any of those players should the haul include any combination of picks, young players who have promise, or enough salary cap relief that gets the team under the luxury tax line this season. That last point is important because deals that shed salary need to get the team under the tax or they aren’t as worthwhile, at least in my opinion. Turning this season into one of the two consecutive years the team would be under the tax will help with flexibility in signing players over the next couple of summers and allow the team to have a longer window as a high payroll team over the next 5 seasons. If you’re in support of the Lakers needing to spend big money and not have to worry about the repeater tax — a tax that many teams will simply not be willing to pay — getting under the tax line as soon as possible is a worthwhile goal. That said, cutting payroll and not getting under the tax only saves money, and while that may be good for business, it doesn’t have as much tangible benefit in terms of team building and roster construction. I will always try to judge deals on all the factors and that includes what, if anything, comes back and how that can be used to help create a winning team in the near or immediate future.

In getting back to tonight’s game, the big story is Dwight’s return to Los Angeles but I’d be lying if I said that had much meaning to me. Not because of any ill will I hold towards Dwight or because of some silly idea that he was never a “real Laker”, but because this version of the Lakers has little to no connection to the team Dwight played on. Of the active players, only Blake, Hill, Meeks, and Sacre were even teammates of Dwight and with Pau and Kobe both out I just can’t find the energy to think that his return takes on some extra meaning beyond him being a former Laker. Yes, I understand his departure was ugly and I know that fans at the arena (and in comment sections of sites just like this one) will be merciless in their reaction to him tonight, but for me I can’t muster that same hate level. He’s a Rocket and he made a choice that he thought made the most sense for him. I’m not going to cry over spilled milk; what’s done is done.

The Lakers will have to deal with him tonight, however, and that will be an issue. He’s putting up numbers similar to what he posted last year, but it’d be silly to think he’s the same player. His explosiveness has returned and his effectiveness on D has gone up as a result. He’s still a beast around the rim and with his first step resembling what it was in past years, he’s able to create better looks for himself offensively. The Lakers will also need to keep him off the offensive glass where he’s always been very good. So, a lot of burden will be placed at the feet of Chris Kaman and Robert Sacre (and maybe even Jordan Hill) to try and play physically with Dwight and take him out of his comfort zone.

Also key will be trying to slow the perimeter attack of the Rockets which is led by James Harden, but supplemented nicely by Chandler Parsons, Jeremy Lin, and stretch PF Terrence Jones. All three are capable of hitting from the outside and are deadly in transition so tracking them all over the floor in both the half court and in transition will be key. Harden is especially dangerous as he is a monster in both isolation and in the P&R and will look to get into the teeth of the defense to create shots for himself or teammates while also drawing a ton of fouls. Considering the Lakers’ depth issues, they can ill afford to have too many of their wings hampered with foul trouble. Not only will that limit their minutes, but it will hamper their effectiveness and lower their aggression level on both ends.

Ultimately, while X’s and O’s will be important, I think the biggest keys to this game will really come down to energy and playing smart. If the Lakers can play hard for 48 minutes, keep their fouls down, and move the ball well to get the Rockets’ D into some scramble situations that lead to open shots, they will probably be competitive for long stretches. That’s a tall task, however, and with only nine players they will have their work cut out for them. But if there is any time to be able to pull it off, it’s coming out of the break where they have fresh legs and are facing an opponent who will instantly have the crowd frothing at the mouth.

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

Darius Soriano

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