Dwight returns: Houston Rockets at Los Angeles Lakers preview

Andrew Richardson-USA TODAY Spor

D12 faces the Lakers for the first time since his July departure to Houston, in front of what should be a calm, collected Los Angeles crowd.

Showtime: 7:30 pm PT

Plot: At 18-35, what are we really getting up for in late February games? The Lakers are almost assuredly out of the playoff hunt, needing to go a clean 29-0 the rest of the way if they even want to sniff the bottom of the postseason bracket. Any given night, you're probably watching losing basketball. So what are you tuning in for?

Watching the young guys? Besides Ryan Kelly and Robert Sacre, any player under the age of 27 may not even be on this roster next year. It's not like we're watching Derrick Rose blossom in front of our eyes his rookie season.

Watching the trade bait players? The deadline is coming up tomorrow, so even investing in these guys might be a fruitless pursuit--half of them may not be in purple & gold come Thursday afternoon. For the most part, their value is already set.

Of the few practical reasons (practical--a word that may not pertain to the gigantic Laker-maniacs that inhabit this blog) to keep on watching the Show at this point in the season, this week may present all but two of them. The first?

Dwight Howard--remember that guy?--makes his ballyhooed return to STAPLES Center clad in red and white alongside his new teammates in the Houston Rockets.

Lakers fans will be out in force tonight, giving their warmest, loudest and most "enthusiastic" welcome to the big man who many of us once thought would be the team's next franchise player. Howard spurned LA in early July, taking less years and less money to sign with the young, up-and-coming Rockets. He has done everything he possibly can to underplay this particular game since the schedule came out, going so far as to virtually stop answering any questions pertaining to his year in Los Angeles. But the truth is that the way that the year has unfurled, he hasn't had to try very hard as of late. His contract gamble has paid immediate dividends--the Rockets are laced up in a virtual three-way tie for the 3-seed in the Western Conference, while the Lakers are tied for dead last. It's not that hard to stay away from Dwight/Lakers questions when one team is horrible and the other is finally coming into its own.

Dwight's presence has helped transform the Rockets from an also-ran playoff team to a legitimate Western Conference Finals contender. The combination of Howard and young wing players like Chandler Parsons, Jeremy Lin and All-Star James Harden have given way to one of the best offenses in the league, an incredible scoring unit that's very hard to stop. Defensively, the Rockets are where the Lakers were last season--almost entirely dependent on Howard's ability as a paint protector to stop opposing teams.

As hyped as the Lakers may be for this game, they couldn't be catching the Rockets at a worse time. Houston has won seven straight games and ten out of their last twelve, beating Portland, San Antonio, Dallas and Phoenix in that span. Dwight has certainly been doing his part, notching 22/12 on 60% shooting with 2 blocks, while playing his trademark defense. They're rested and ready for a still banged-up Lakers squad, who won't surprise them like in their first meeting of the year.

LA will get back guard Jodie Meeks tonight, sidelined for over two weeks with a high ankle sprain, who will provide some badly needed shooting alongside Steve Blake and Kendall Marshall. Jordan Farmar, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol are all doubtful with various maladies, while Nick Young, Xavier Henry and Kobe Bryant will all miss the game with knee injuries. Shawne Williams, the waived Laker who was recently re-signed to the team on a 10-day contract, was not re-upped for another when his deal expired on Sunday. This means LA will probably have as little as eight healthy bodies tonight, not ideal when facing a spry young Houston team that will feast off of the relative lack of inside resistance from the Lakers.

Even more than the team itself (of which only four active players were his teammates), the Lakers fans are hoping for a great effort tonight. Considering how short-handed they are and just how poorly they've been playing, all the adrenaline in the world might not help them against the Rockets. Narratives aside, Houston is one of the league's best teams playing their best ball of the season.

Not a great combination for the walking wounded in purple and gold. No matter what the occasion.

--MAMBINO

--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino

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