Double Preview: Rockets and Clippers

In their last game, the Los Angeles Lakers laid a Texas-sized beat down to the Dallas Mavericks.  It was the type of victory that can make a team feel good about themselves.  Everyone contributed, and for one game, the bench was every bit as potent and important as the starters were.  The Lakers had better hope that at least some of that magic stays with those bench players, because the harsh reality is that the Lakers are a beat up squad, and their schedule is about to get real.  Real tough, real condensed.  I hope you didn't plan to go somewhere in the next week or so, because the Lakers will have 6 games in 9 days starting tonight with the Houston Rockets.

Sunday's game against the Dallas Mavericks marked the first time this season that the Lakers faced a team after the other team had beaten them.  The result was a massacre, even though the Lakers played without Ron Artest and (effectively) Pau Gasol.  Just one game later, the Lakers get a chance to do it again in a rematch with the Houston Rockets.  In their last meeting, Houston capitalized on a poor effort from the Lakers and walked away from Staples Center with a 101-91 victory.  The Lakers were 7-3 after that game, and now they have reside at 27-6.  My ultra elite math skills have deducted that the Lakers have gone 20-3 since that loss to the Rockets, a stretch that included an 11 game win streak.

Word on the street is that Ron Artest will be available for tonight's game, and that comes not a moment too soon.  With Pau Gasol out, if Ron Artest is unable to go, the Lakers will be in the unenviable position of either starting their 3rd string PF (with Lamar continuing to go at the 3) or having Kobe shift over to the 3 full time, leaving a steaming pile of inconsistency and incompetence in the Lakers back court.  For the purposes of actual matchups, this doesn't really matter, as the Rockets start two small forwards anyways, but without Artest, the Lakers will have to pick their poison in giving significant minutes to the triumvirate of Josh Powell, Adam Morrison, or Sasha Vujacic.  So please pray for Ron Artest's head, moreso than you already have the entire season.

The last time Houston came to town, people around the NBA were still surprised at how well they were playing.  Without Tracy Mcgrady and Yao Ming, this team was supposed to be in the lottery, not battling for a playoff spot.  Well, their record has carried on in the same fashion, but nobody is surprised anymore.  With two wins against Dallas and another against Cleveland in the past 3 weeks (they also lost to Cleveland during that stretch), the Rockets are most certainly for real and they aren't going anywhere.  It's not easy to nab a playoff spot in the Western Conference, and with a lack of big name talent, the Rockets are not assured of a spot in the 2nd season just yet.  But they've already performed well above expectations, and there is every reason to think that they will continue to do so.

The Rockets have had one thing going for them this year; they have been completely injury free ... well, except for the two players on their roster getting paid superstar money who have been out all year, of course.  I guess what I should say is that their lineup has been extremely consistent since the beginning of the year.  The starting 5 of Hayes, Luis Scola, Trevor Ariza, Aaron Brooks and Shane Battier have started every game for Houston except one, and that was due to Ariza's suspension for throwing an elbow.  Their first 3 players off the bench have also played in every game.  So they may not have any stars (playing), and they may not have anyone on their roster over 6'10", but they damn well know how to play with one another.

The Rockets still employ a starting center who is 6'6", and yet it remains unlikely that the Lakers will be able to fully take advantage of what seems like a glaring weakness.  Pau Gasol will miss tonight's game, leaving Andrew Bynum to take care of the pivot, and Bynum has struggled a bit with the crafty Chuck Hayes.  Hayes has the strength to keep Bynum from getting the post position he wants.  If Bynum gets good position, scoring should be automatic because the Rockets have nobody who can even reach high enough to contest his shots.  But getting that position is the challenge, and nobody makes it more challenging than Hayes.

On the other side of the equation, it is a virtual guarantee that the Rockets will take full advantage of their good matchup, Aaron Brooks against anybody the Lakers send to guard him.  Brooks is super quick, and not many across the entire league can stay in front of him.  Which means, of course, that the Lakers have no one that can stay in the same zip code.  Brooks loves playing the Lakers, as evidenced by the 33 points on 23 shots the last time these two teams met, and by his performance against L.A. in last year's playoffs.  The Lakers also struggle against the small, but active, front court of the Rockets.  It's quite possible the Rockets have their best active player coming off the bench in Carl Landry.  Landry is 2nd on the team in points, and puts the ball in the basket at a higher efficiency than anybody on the team.  He's also the clear cut choice for 6th man of the year at this point in the season.

Will the Lakers come out against the Rockets with the same pissed off mentality that saw the Mavericks fall by the wayside, with vengeance on their minds?  Or will they be self-satisfied after a big win?  You can bet on one thing, the game against the Rockets will be closer than the one against the Mavs.  The Mavericks have more talent, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a team with more heart than the Rockets.  They will keep fighting no matter the score, so it seems unlikely that the Lakers could continue to run away with a game like they did the last one.

Oh, and I guess we should talk a bit about the Clippers, too.

The Clippers, like the Lakers, call Staples Center home.  And when they play the Lakers in a "home" game, the stands are predictably more filled with purple and gold than they are with red and blue.  Of all the "scheduling advantages" you'll hear about, this one is very real.  The Lakers do actually have two more home games than the rest of the league, because there is no denying that a game against the Clippers, surrounded by more friendly fans than enemies, on the same court they play on every night, is a glorified home game.  Further enumerating this advantage, the Lakers are also the only team in the NBA that can play a back-to-back involving two home games.  Normally, two games in two nights requires a fair bit of traveling, as you can't play two (official) home games as part of a back-to-back.  But over the next two nights, the Lakers get to play two games without having to go anywhere, without having to play in two different arenas, without having to deal with any of the normal issues with playing a back to back.  Plus, they get an added benefit that is available to the rest of the NBA at large ... they get to play the Clippers.

All kidding aside, the Clippers aren't a bad team, but they aren't a good one either.  3 games below .500, the Clippers don't do anything well, and they don't do anything terribly, except perhaps turn the ball over and shoot free throws.  Other than that, they are consistently between mediocre and moderately below average across the board.  They have some bright spots; Chris Kaman is having the best year of his career in averaging 20 and 9 (and, if we're honest, deserves a reserve All-Star spot more than our own Drew Bynum).  Eric Gordan looks to be a guy who will be in the league for a long time to come, perhaps just short of All-Star potential.  And supposedly that Blake Griffin guy is pretty good, but in typical Clipper fashion, we may never find out about it.

But the issue with the Clippers is at the top.  They are led, in the locker room and on the court, by incompetence.  Mike Dunleavy is one of the worst coaches currently applying his trade at the top level, and his failure is made more glaring because of how long he has been allowed to fail.  Bill Simmons, in a situation where he is devoid of feeling, and therefore capable of good analysis without bias, has been railing on Dunleavy for years, and his criticisms are spot on.  And then there's Baron Davis.  Whether infected by the Clippers' organizational incompetence and malaise, upset because he thought he was coming to a contender before Elton Brand slipped out of town, or simply giving in to the demon within, Baron Davis hasn't looked interested in playing basketball the right way for a few years now.  At his best, he's one of the most physical point guards in the NBA, with the ability to attack the rim and create shots for teammates with ease.  At his worst, he settles for way too many contested outside jumpers, even though he's not a very good shooter.  His best hardly ever shows up.

Regardless, short of playing the Nets or the T-Wolves, a "road" game against the Clippers is about as nice as the 2nd night of a back-to-back can get.  The Lakers will be surrounded by adoring fans, playing where they are comfortable playing, after a night of sleeping in their own bed, and the Clippers don't even run the ball, so fatigue won't be much of a factor either.  Unless, of course, Kobe Bryant has to play every single minute of both games because the Lakers' depth is so woefully thin.

Lakers

Rockets

Clippers

RECORD

27-6 (1)

20-14 (11)

15-18 (18)

NET POINTS PER GAME

+7.6 (2)

+.8 (13)

-3 (22)

PACE

94.8 (6)

93.1 (12)

91.9 (23)

OFFENSIVE RATING

109.0 (10)

107.1 (15)

103.9 (23)

Turnover Rate (Off.)

12.8% (7)

13.3 (10)

14.6 (26)

FTA/FGA (Off.)

0.217 (22)

0.214 (24)

0.220 (20)

Free-Throw %

77.2 (9)

76.1 (15)

72.7 (27)

Effective FG% (Off.)

50.2 (13)

49.1 (19)

49.4 (17)

True Shooting% (Off.)

54.3 (14)

53.2 (20)

53.3 (19)

Off Rebounding Rate

27.7% (11)

27.8% (10)

27.1% (12)

DEFENSIVE RATING

101.1 (2)

106.2 (15)

107.1 (18)

Turnover Rate (Def.)

14.1% (12)

13.7% (15)

13.3% (20)

FTA/FGA (Def.)

0.198 (4)

0.217 (12)

 0.227 (16)

Effective FG% (Def.)

46.8 (1)

49.8 (17)

48.8 (11)

True Shooting% (Def.)

50.8 (1)

54.1 (17)

53.3 (11)

Def Rebounding Rate

73.0% (19)

73.7% (11)

72.1% (24)

 

All statistical terms defined here. Parentheses indicate league rankings. Numbers are courtesy of Basketball Prospectus and HoopData and, except for record and net points per game, are through Sunday night's action.  Check out The Dream Shake and Clips Nation if you are feeling frisky.  Just behave yourselves.

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