LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 29: Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers gestures after making a basket and being fouled in the second half against the New York Knicks at Staples Center on December 29, 2011 in Los Angeles, California. The Lakers defeated the Knicks 99-82. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
Tonight the Lakers look to regain their shooting touch against the Houston Rockets within the friendly confines of Staples Center. The Lakers connected on only 6 of 47 (13%) three point attempts in their back-to-back match-up with the Denver Nuggets. Kobe Bryant was especially poor making only 12 of 46 (26%) field goal attempts, including an abysmal 1 for 13 (8%) from deep. On the season the Lakers are 28th in the league from behind the arc making fewer than one in four attempts.
While the long range shooting has been a dark cloud so far this season, the return of Andrew Bynum has been a light at the end of the tunnel. The big man has averaged 23.5 points and 14.5 rebounds while making two-thirds of his shot attempts in his two games back on the floor. Making the performance even more impressive is that he accomplished it against a very physical Nene Hilario and 7’1" Timofey Mozgov. The Rockets don’t possess nearly the size that Denver did which bodes well for Bynum to continue his recent dominance. The Rockets have been starting the 6’10" Jordan Hill or 6’9" Luis Scola at center this year but that will likely change tonight as both are simply too small for Bynum. Look for the Rockets to utilize Samuel Dalembert much more than the 20 minutes per game he has averaged so far this season. Should Dalembert have foul difficulty, the Rockets may even use the "break glass in case of emergency" second year player Hasheem Thabeet. Like most nights the Lakers will have a size advantage and should look to exploit it.
Things won’t get any easier for the Rockets on the perimeter. They have two very capable shooting guards in Kevin Martin and Courtney Lee. The problem is that each player is good at only one end of the floor. Kevin Martin is one of the best scoring two-guards in the association and the Rockets need his scoring punch. He has taken 18.5 field goal attempts in both Houston wins compared to only 10.5 in their two losses. However as good as he is offensively, he is equally poor defensively. It should not be difficult for Kobe to break out of his slump if Martin is guarding him all night.
In order to slow down Kobe, the Rockets could put Lee on him. While it would be a huge upgrade defensively, it would be nearly impossible for Kyle Lowry and the Rockets frontline to produce enough points to win the game, especially against the size of the Lakers twin towers. The Rockets have used both Martin and Lee together on the wings with Martin sliding over to small forward. This is an option for the Rockets but it could only be used when Ebanks or Barnes is playing small forward. If Artest is on the floor the Lakers should look inside for him to post up the much smaller Martin.
The one position the Rockets do have an advantage at is the point guard position with Lowry. Lowry has gotten off to a fast start this season by averaging 11.5 assists through the first four games. He has assisted on over 50% of his teammates baskets when he is on the floor. The Rockets will look to him to create opportunities for his teammates as, other than Martin and Scola, no other Rocket can consistently generate shots. It will be on the Lakers frontline to continue to show a strong hedge on pick and rolls while quickly recovering.
The Rockets are a team that is almost an ideal opponent for the Lakers. The aforementioned match-up problems are only part of the issues facing Houston. The Rockets offensive identity is a team that shoots efficiently (8th in league) and doesn’t turn the ball over (4th in the league). The Lakers are the best team in the league at defensive eFG% and they don’t focus on turnovers as a priority defensively. The Lakers biggest weakness defensively this year has been their propensity to foul and put the opposition on the free throw line. The Rockets however are the worst team in the league at getting to the line. Additionally, the Rockets do not play at a high speed pace like Denver does. This too suits the bigger slower Lakers team. On the other end of the floor, the Rockets biggest strengths are their ability to control the defensive boards (11th) and avoid putting the opposition on the foul line (1st). The combination of Bynum and Gasol will surely test the Rockets in both categories.
On paper tonight’s game should be a fairly easy win for the team wearing purple and gold. Las Vegas has the line at Lakers by 7 and Accuscore predicts the Lakers to be a fairly safe bet to cover. Houston is used to being an underdog and they never lack hustle and heart which keeps them in most games. If the Lakers don’t stay focused they are more than capable of letting a game get away from them, and in this shortened season, each game is extremely important.