The end of the Lakers’ 8-game, 12 day road trip is finally here. After nearly two weeks on the road, the Lakers play their 3rd back to back of the trip tonight, in Houston, against the Rockets. The Lakers are 1-6 to this point, with the Spurs pulling away from them in the 2nd half last night, showing the gulf of a difference between the two teams this season.
Not all was bad Friday night, however. D’Angelo Russell had his second consecutive strong scoring game, setting a career high (again) with 24 points. Yes, he also took 23 shots, but several of those were late game misses when the game was out of hand. His early game work was splendid, with his long range touch setting the tone for his attack. He finished 5-10 from behind the arc and is continuing to find that range on that shot – range which eluded him earlier in the year.
As Byron Scott noted after the game, Russell is playing with confidence and it’s showing in his overall approach. He’s not deferring as much within the half court, is looking for his own shot more, and is doing more probing off the dribble in order to draw extra defensive attention. Assists aren’t yet following, but he’s making mostly good reads and is organizing the team well offensively. As Scott said, he’d like to see Russell string together a few more “good” performances, but it’s clear the rookie is improving which is what we’re all looking for.
This brings us to tonight’s game because Russell is facing the best defensive PG he’s seen to this point in the year in the Rocket’s Patrick Beverly. Beverly is an irritant of the highest order, pestering ball handlers full court, clutching and holding off the ball, and playing as physically as he can for every moment he’s on the floor. Russell has been okay against heavy ball pressure this season, but he’s mostly used retreat dribbles and called for screens to help him get free. In recent games, he’s done better work in isolation (his game tying shot against Wiggins in Minnesota is a good example), so I’ll be interested in seeing if Russell looks to create for himself against Beverly or calls in reinforcements in the form of a big man sitting a pick.
Beyond the battle at PG, the other matchups on the perimeter are also worth watching. James Harden has not boasted the same MVP level play from last season, but he’s still an incredible threat. It’s doubtful Jordan Clarkson plays tonight, so that likely means either Lou Williams or Kobe gets the Harden assignment. Harden is as crafty as ever off the dribble and still has a great shooting touch, so there’s really no great way to defend him unless you have quick feet and can avoid reaching in. I don’t anticipate Lou or Kobe being able to stay with him tonight, but it’s also quite possible Harden has a rough night (which he’s had plenty of this year).
As for the rest of the match ups, the battles at PF/C will be interesting. The Rockets have recently gone to a twin-towers lineup that features Clint Capella and Dwight Howard, with both big men patrolling the paint defensively and wreaking havoc on the offensive glass. Randle and Hibbert will find the paint crowded with their counterparts trying to close off the rim, and both would do well for themselves by hitting a couple mid-range jumpers and finding their man early defensively to keep them off the offensive glass.
The Rockets are a much better team than the Lakers and have won 4 of their last 5 games. However, they’re still under .500 on the year and have been very up and down even after their horrid start which cost Kevin McHale his job. I do not expect the Lakers to win this game, but I do think it can be competitive as long as Harden doesn’t get too hot early. If the Lakers can hang around, I’d love for another close crunch time where the young guys can get some additional seasoning.
Where you can watch: 5:00pm start time on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen on ESPN Radio Los Angeles 710AM.