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Game Preview: Houston Rockets vs. Los Angeles Lakers

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Tonight, the Lakers play host to the Houston Rockets.  It will be slightly more special than the usual game, as this is the first game in Los Angeles for Trevor Ariza since playing a major role in bring a championship to the Lakers last season.  So, in a moment that is sure to be bittersweet, TA will be receiving his championship ring before the game.  Make sure to get there early (and by there, I mean the couch for most of you).  Regardless of where you sit on the Trevor Ariza vs. Ron Artest fence, I don't think a single Lakers fan was happy to see Trevor go.  We all have a fond place in our heart for him, and if you don't, you may or may not have a soul.  So it will be quite enjoyable to see him reap the rewards of his efforts last season, no matter what uniform he's wearing now.  Sappy note aside, onto the preview.

Catching up with the Lakers (7-2, tied 2nd in West, 106.3 OR, 102.8 DR, 93.9 Pace)

The Lakers will surely want to use the game tonight to wipe off the stench of their last game, the Denver Debacle.  Even if everyone knows that game was likely a loss to start, the Lakers included, there is still no excuse for losing a single half by 24 points.  That said, it was not a particularly surprising result to me.  I don't think you can take too much from that game, analysis wise.  The starters hung in there for a while, got tired, and lost it in the 3rd quarter.  Nowhere was this more visible than in the play of Kobe Bryant

Kobe didn't have a particularly strong game in either half, but his effort level was significantly higher in the 1st half than in the 2nd.  In the first half, he was working his way down on the block, attempting to post.  In the 2nd half, he was catching the ball 20 feet from the basket, waiting a couple seconds, and then just shooting a jumper, with maybe a few dribbles to attempt separation.  It was the epitome of lazy basketball, although in this case you can substitute the word lazy for the word tired.  And if Kobe Bryant, he of the world-renowned work ethic and conditioning, is tired, you can only imagine how the rest of the team was feeling.  It was a schedule loss, created by the NBA scheduling department, and every single team in the league has them.

The one real negative you can take out of that game was the play of the bench, but honestly, is anybody surprised if and when the bench tosses up a stinker, especially on the road?  At this point, anybody pointing to the Lakers margin of victory (often used by stat-heads like Hollinger as the best indication of how good a team is) as a cause for concern needs to check reality.  The reality is if the bench comes in to the 4th quarter with a 25 point lead, the Lakers will likely win by 10.  If the bench comes in to the 4th quarter down 10, the Lakers will lose by 25.  In either situation, Phil Jackson is likely to stop caring about the game, and will do nothing to stop it.  Is the play of the bench concerning?  Absolutely.  Is it going to prevent LA from reaching any of their goals?  That remains to be seen.  It's the same bench that LA won the championship with last year, and once the playoffs come around, a deep bench becomes less and less important.  So the bench WILL cost the Lakers some regular season games if they can't pick things up.  And an injury to one of the starters (like Pau's injury now) does put the Lakers in a tight spot regarding depth.  But it seems clear to me that margin of victory is a little less successful at measuring the top-heavy Lakers than other teams that have a little more balance between the starters and bench players.

After the jump, catching up with Houston, and match-ups.

Catching up with the Houston Rockets (5-4, tied 6th in West, 108.5 OR, 106.0 DR, 94.5 Pace)

Last we saw Houston, they were the surprise of the league, with a 3-1 record and some significant wins.  Now, they are a bit more under the radar (with teams like Sacramento at 5-4 and Milwaukee at 5-2), but they still look to be a much better team than anybody suspected.  Trevor Ariza is finding success as the team's lead player, although his shooting numbers have definitely come back down to earth a little bit (42% overall, 38% from 3pt).  Carl Landry continues to be an absolute beast off the bench, scoring 14 points per game in only 24 minutes.  If the Rockets can keep it up, they should be able to make the playoffs with a lower half seed, and the "if" in that statement is disappearing more and more with every game.

The Match-ups

Everyone saw last season's playoff series with the Rockets.  Houston lost Yao Ming, and then proceeded to destroy the Lakers in the rest of their home games in the series, while getting destroyed in the games in Los Angeles.  The Rockets formula for success was efficient scoring from their "big" men, Luis Scola and Landry, great outside shooting, and quick guard domination with Aaron Brooks and Kyle Lowry.  In the recent game between these two teams, the Lakers escaped with a narrow 103-102 overtime victory.  A funny thing happened in that game.  Down the stretch in the 4th quarter, the Rockets turned to super quick PG Aaron Brooks and expected him to terrorize the Lakers defense with his quickness on Derek "Stoneshoes" Fisher.  The Rockets gave the ball to Brooks and constantly isolated him, or ran a pick and roll for him.  And an extremely unexpected thing happened.  Fisher ... handled it pretty well.  Brooks did not run rampant, the Rockets did not get a whole lot of success from it, and there ended up being complaints from Houston about the "tactics" Fisher was using against Brooks, a sure sign that Fisher got into the little dude's head just a bit.  I have no idea if Fisher can pull that off again (he certainly hasn't changed people's minds about his foot speed this season), but if he can, I don't see how Houston can pull out a win tonight.

Elsewhere, the Lakers will still be without Pau Gasol (I think, I haven't seen an update in a couple days), but that doesn't change the fact that the Lakers should own the Rockets inside with their height.  The Rockets, are one of the worse rebounding teams in the league.  I say should because we've seen it not happen far too often to ignore.  The Rockets still employ a starting center who lists at 6'6", but Bynum has yet to fully solve the riddle that is Chuck HayesLamar Odom also has either an athleticism advantage (Scola) or a size advantage (Landry) on his counterparts, so the Lakers easiest path to victory is, as always, down low.

Kobe Bryant had his first bad game in the post against Denver.  In the first match-up between Houston and LA this season, he torched Battier from the block, in a way that I don't think I've seen him do before.  Whether this happens again will go a long way to determining whether the Lakers are in for a fight, or win going away.  A word of caution to those expecting Bryant to walk all over Battier again:  Battier, more than any other player in the league, is a great defender because of his preparation.  He studies what his opponent does, analyzes their tendencies, and figures out precisely what course of action will lead them to the least efficiency.  The first Rockets-Lakers tilt was Battier's first experience with "post-Kobe", and there weren't a whole lot of games for Battier to analyze Bryant's new offensive weaponry.  Now, Battier has a bit more first-hand experience, so at the very least, he will have a better game plan to try to contain Bryant in the post than he had in the first game.  That said, Kobe is also coming off of his first bad game in the post, so look for him to re-assert his ability to have success in that area early and often.  No surprise, this match-up is the key to the game.

Also, look for both Ron Artest and Trevor Ariza to be slightly more restrained in this game.  In the first game, both players were clearly trying to "make a point" by sticking it to their former clubs.  That element of the game may not go away completely, but I don't expect to see Ariza pressing quite like he did a couple weeks ago, or Artest putting up quite as many shots outside of the offense as he did against Houston.

Lakers starting 5:  Bryant, Fisher, Bynum, Odom, Artest.  Bench rotation:  Farmar, Brown, Vujacic, Powell, Walton, Mbenga

Rockets starting 5: Battier, Brooks, Hayes, Scola, Ariza.  Bench rotation: Lowry, Landry, Chase Buddinger, David Anderson

No preview yet over at The Dream Shake, but we'll keep you posted.