Usually one of the first things I do when looking at a Laker matchup this time of year is see what happened the last two times these teams hooked up. However, in the case of the Rockets, the Lakersâ€™ 84-79 win Nov. 13 is almost meaningless.
There are three reasons for this: 1) Tracy McGrady missed that game (strained hip); 2) the Rockets had not yet traded for David Wesley; 3) the Rockets stunk it up early on, but since Dec. 1 they are 10-6.
As you would expect, McGrady (22.24PER) and Yao Ming (22.59 PER) lead the way for the Rockets, but this has been more McGradyâ€™s team than Mingâ€™s â€” heâ€™s playing 10 more minutes per game, handling a slightly higher percentage of the teamâ€™s possessions when both are on the floor, and has taken 215 more shots this season (in one less game). That said, Yao has been the more efficient offensive option â€” he is averaging more points per possession (1.18 to 1.02) and is shooting much better (51.9% to 45.6%, both eFG%).
But Houston has received sparks from other places as well. David Wesley was picked up (for Jim Jackson and Bostjan Nachbar) two days after Christmas and is already second on the team in Roland Rating, giving them good play at the point. (As a side note, this trade appears very unpopular with Rockets fans.) Also, third on the team in PER is backup center Dikembe Mutombo (18.89), who has been the teamâ€™s most efficient rebounder (when heâ€™s not knocking flat the future of the NBA).
There are weaknesses â€” how a team with Ming and Mutombo is the worst offensive rebounding team in the league is beyond me, but itâ€™s true. They grab just 25% of their own missed shots (for comparison, the Lakers grab 30.1%).
Another weakness is defending the four (18.3 oPER), one thing we can take away from the first game between these teams, when Lamar Odom led the Lakers with 20 points. Odom needs to have another big night if the Lakers are going to win.
Kobe may try to have a big night as well â€” the game is on ESPN and, because heâ€™s donating $1,000 per point to tsunami relief, there will be additional publicity. However, what is more important than his scoring is the defensive matchup between him and McGrady â€” whichever player can do the better job of forcing his opponent out of his game will give his team a huge advantage.
On the whole Houston plays good defense (they hold teams to 97.9 points per 100 possessions, fourth best in the league). They donâ€™t rely on their offense to win, rather they try to have a slow game (25th in the league in the number of possessions per game), play good defense and score just enough to beat you. For the Lakers to win, they need to play defense as well (for the first time in a few games).
This is a big game for the Lakers â€” after a slow start the Rockets are 16-16 and creeping up into the playoff picture. The Lakers need to keep the Rockets behind them, and a head-to-head win will go a long way toward that, and maybe restore some of the confidence the team lost in Texas this week.