Following the win against the Clippers, we can be reasonably assured that barring a horrendous finish to the season, the Lakers will come out on top with at least the third seed in the West. Getting any higher appears to be rather difficult given that the Spurs have a four and a half game lead on the Lakers, so even if the Lakers sweep the three (!) games that they have yet to play against the Spurs, it is unlikely that a better seed is possible. That the Spurs get the top seed is not a far-fetched scenario either, as they are tied with the Thunder in the loss column, which should give the Lakers ample motivation in those games to avoid a very tough second round matchup. In any case, we should now turn our gaze to the bottom end of the playoff picture and the ever-changing menagerie of probable first round opponents.
The Houston Rockets are one of those teams. In what must be a annual tradition for general manager Daryl Morey, his best two players in Kyle Lowry and Kevin Martin are out for the year, although Lowry might return close to the playoffs. In the meantime, Houston has eked out a playoff seed based on the strength of a motley collection of role players and established veterans that Morey appears to pull from the ether every year. Houston is by all respects an average team -- they rank twelfth in offensive efficiency, fifteenth on the defensive side and are middling in terms of pace. At the same time, they defeated the Thunder and the Bulls on the road last month and have consistently produced more than what would be seemingly possible with the sum of their parts.
The last time these two squads faced each other, the Lakers fell in a three point loss in the early part of the Ramon Sessions era, also known as the game in which Sessions obliterated the Rockets off the high pick-and-roll and the Lakers subsequently refused to run another set for him the rest of the game. That, thankfully, appears to not be the case anymore. Sessions has been intimately involved in the offense ever since becoming a starter and the rest of the roster has begun to adapted quite well to his presence. A certain Kobe Bryant, the one we apply the most blame to for the aforementioned debacle against Houston, has particularly embraced Sessions' presence, as seen every time the Lakers ran a 1-2 pick-and-roll at the top of the key or on the wing. Kobe has undoubtedly realized that three things can happen when he becomes involved in this set: (1) he gets a switch on a smaller defender and can take him to town, as he did all game against the Clippers; (2) Sessions gets an open lane and proceeds into the heart of the defense for a scoring or passing opportunity; or (3) Sessions gets an open shot from behind the line.
This holds particular relevance because it has become firmly established that Kobe has struggled the most lately against taller defenders who can bother his shot and are less prone to getting out of position due to crafty footwork. Chandler Parsons, another in a long, long line of nice pickups for Morey in the second round, presents such an obstacle with his 6'9'' frame. Last game, Kobe decided to shoot over Parsons most of the time, which naturally didn't end well. With Sessions, however, this turns into a switch against Goran Dragic or another defender and as noted above, invariably opens up opportunities for everyone else on the floor.
As for the rest of the offense, the main option has to be Andrew Bynum, who walked over the entirety of the Clippers' frontcourt last game and he should have about as much resistance against this bunch. Marcus Camby is an excellent weakside helper but a poor straight-up post defender and Samuel Dalembert falls into much of the same category. Neither have the bulk nor the length to slow down Bynum in the post and the Lakers should be going to Bynum as often as they did against the Clippers. The Lakers' guards and wings have become particularly adept at getting Bynum good position on brush and cross screens and there should be plenty of opportunities to get a player such as Camby, always looking for the help opportunity, sealed into the deep post.
On the other end, the vanguard of the Rockets' attack will come in the form of Goran Dragic, who has done an able job of filling in for Lowry by putting up a very respectable 17.47 PER on a 56.5 TS%. He works well on the pick-and-roll, can penetrate to the rim, and his distributing skills have improved this year from past campaigns. Sessions' defense has been pinpointed as one of his weaknesses ever since coming to L.A., especially his Shannon Brown-esque tendency to always go under screens. How he contains Dragic -- and especially how the Lakers' help defense looks -- will go a long way towards determining the ultimate victor of the game. The rest of the Lakers' defensive responsibilities largely revolve around staying home on shooters, never an easy thing for this bunch, and on Pau Gasol and Josh McRoberts crowding Luis Scola, the other main offensive threat on the opposing roster.
Altogether, this should be a romp for this Lakers' squad. The matchups are firmly in their favor, they displayed how well they can surgically dismantle a team with their offense against the Clippers, and Houston simply doesn't have the talent to pull this out. This noted, the Rockets are fresh off beating a Bulls team on the road, no mean feat even if the Bulls were missing Derrick Rose. In this lockout shortened season, focus and consistent effort have been in short supply, especially for a Lakers squad that has spent much of the previous three years loafing through the regular season, but this should be a win by any reckoning.
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