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Game Preview: Double Feature (updated)

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Before the season began, the great minds behind Silver Screen and Roll came together to figure out what kind of posts we wanted to have throughout the season.  We decided on an ambitious schedule that calls for three different posts for every game, a preview, a post game, and Timbo's infamous View.  That, combined with game threads, would give us the most comprehensive Lakers coverage on the net.  The only problem with that schedule is the back to back.  Whenever the Lakers play two games in two nights, planning posts is a bit like playing Tetris.  So, to solve this problem, the preview ahead of a back to back will tackle both of the upcoming opponents at once.  Consider this the straight piece you've been waiting on forever, the one that finally lets you clear all four lines.  On to the preview(s):

What's up with the Lakers (2-1, 2nd Pacific, 102.3 OR, 101.9 DR, 96.8 Pace)

By far the biggest news in Lakerland is the word that Pau Gasol's injury might be worse than initially diagnosed.  Instead of a strained hamstring that always made it seem like Gasol was just one game away, a sonogram has shown that the strain may, in fact, be a slight tear, which would see Gasol miss a maximum of six weeks.  A sonogram isn't the best tool to diagnose this injury with, just the one that provides the fastest results.  Gasol also underwent an MRI that will be much more official, but the results of that test won't be known until later today.  Either way, Gasol is almost certainly not going to play in the next two games, and could miss a great deal more under the worst case scenario.

There's no way to look at this news as other than a big blow to the Lakers.  The Lakers haven't exactly looked spectacular with Gasol out of the lineup.No, they aren't going to miss the playoffs, but a significant amount of time missed by Gasol could hurt their chances at getting home-court advantage throughout the playoffs, especially considering the torrid pace that the Celtics and Magic have displayed (albeit in only 4 games).  Another, lesser, concern is that it will be that much longer before the Lakers have the chance to fully integrate the entire team.  I don't think Gasol will take much time to get back in the swing of things, and I don't foresee any further Ron Artest integration issues added when Gasol returns, but you like to have your team be as comfortable with each other as possible, and that can only happen by playing together.  If this is the only major injury the Lakers have all year, it'll end up not being a big deal, and it could end up being beneficial by forcing some other players to step up.  That said, it's not the way you want to start your season.

Getting back to the team's performance, the Lakers finally put together a game to be proud of in their 118-100 defeat of the Atlanta Hawks.  It may not have been overly dominant, but for the first time this season, there were flashes of dominance.  Check that, one very big flash, via the Lakers 18-0 run midway through the 3rd quarter.  It was very nice to see the Lakers turn on the jets and really mow a decent team down, despite the fact that the bench once again proved to be incapable of holding the big lead.  A 22 point lead at the beginning of the 4th quarter became a 14 point lead half way through, forcing Phil Jackson to put the starters back in to seal the win.  The starters lost another 6 points off the end tally, but the result was never in doubt.  Perhaps more important than the end result, the Lakers finally put together an offensive performance that could be described in more positive terms that "an embarassment".

After the jump, find out what's up with the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Houston Rockets.  And match-ups, of course.

What's up with the Thunder (2-1, 2nd Northwest, 101.1 OR, 96.6 DR, 88.0 Pace)

Oklahoma City enters tonight's game sporting the same record as the Lakers, 2-1.  They opened the season with a win against Sacramento and a somewhat impressive road win at Detroit before losing to the Trailblazers in a game that our own resident Blazer lover, Timbo, described as a "dismal exhibition of competitive pooping."  They have had success with strong defense and they play at the 3rd slowest pace in the league.  The Thunder are still a very young squad, and it should come as no surprise that they will have significant ups and downs.  Anything less than a significant up against the Lakers should see them walk away from this game with a loss.

What's up with the Rockets (3-1, 1st Southwest, 111.1 OR, 107.6 DR, 94.3 Pace)

I think it's fair to say that the Houston Rockets are probably the biggest surprise of the young season so far.  Many pegged them to struggle this year, without either of their big name super stars (Yao and Tracy McGrady, in case you forgot).  Their active roster seems to be comprised of almost entirely role players.  And yet, they are off to a strong start, including wins over Portland and at Utah.  They've done it with torrid outside shooting.  The Rockets have put up 87 3PT shots through 4 games, tied for 2nd in the NBA, and they are connecting at almost 45%.  Whether that pace can be kept up remains to be seen, but the Rockets have shown time and time again that adversity is their best friend.  The Rockets seem to constantly be underrated and this year is no exception.

The match-ups with the Thunder (updated)

Lakers starting 5: Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom, Ron Artest, Kobe Bryant, Derek Fisher

Important bench players: Jordan Farmar, Shannon Brown, Sasha Vujacic, Luke Walton, Josh Powell, DJ Mbenga

Thunder starting 5: Nenad Krstic, Jeff Green, Thabo Sefalosha, Kevin Durant, Russel Westbrook

Important bench players: Etan Thomas, Nick Collison, James Harden, Kevin Ollie

[Update:  Kobe is questionable tonight with flu like symptoms.  I'm still including him in the starting lineup, because we all know it would probably take a tranquilizer gun to keep the Mamba out of a game, but even if he does play, he probably won't be 100%.  Not good news, especially going into a back to back.]

On most nights, the Lakers' biggest advantage over their opponents is length.  Against the Thunder, that's not necessarily the case.  The Thunder have quite a bit of height in their starting lineup, actually a bit more than the Lakers when averaged out over every position.  But that length does not come along with the requisite size.  Krstic is 7 feet, but gives up about 40 pounds to Bynum.  Durant is 6'9", but he gives up 50 pounds (at least) to Ron Artest.  So, despite the fact that the Thunder would, on paper, seem to be OK on length, the Lakers' best option should be to pound the Thunder down low with anybody and everybody.  Bynum should be on the block, Odom should be on the block, Artest and Kobe too.  This is a team that the Lakers should be able to beat up.

Off the bench, the Thunder have two workmanlike, if not very special, forwards in Thomas and Collison.  Harden is a rookie, and may turn into a solid pro, but he hasn't done much yet early in his first season.  Ollie plays almost 15 minutes a game, but provides very little.  If you think the Lakers bench is a liability, check out this unit.  The Thunder bench is good for only 13 points a game.  I'm not doing the research to verify, but I would guess that's amongst the worst bench production in the league.  If ever there was a game where our bench should be able to be a significant (positive) factor on a game, this is it.

For the Lakers bench, look to see if anything comes about from a recent article in which Jordan Farmar requested that the guard rotation be shortened from 3 guards off the bench to 2 guards off the bench.  While some who are more pessimistic regarding Farmar might see this request as yet another sign that Jordan doesn't get it, supposedly Farmar made the request knowing full well that he might be the one left with the short end of the stick.  Even if that's the case, Farmar says that a shorter rotation would help better define roles and create more consistent play from the guards.  I couldn't agree more.  Phil Jackson also agrees, and says that the rotations will be shortened, but that he needs a few more games to evaluate who's going to have their minutes reduced to almost nothing.

The match-ups with the Rockets

Lakers starting 5 and bench:  See Above

Rockets starting 5: Chuck Hayes, Luis Scola, Trevor Ariza (sniff), Shane Battier, Aaron Brooks

Important bench players: Kyle Lowry, Carl Landry, Chase Buddinger, David Anderson

Tell me this game doesn't scare you.  It sure as hell scares me.  This is basically the same team that the Lakers had so much difficulty with in the playoffs last year.  Just take out Ron Artest (who killed the Rockets with bad shots in last year's playoffs) and replace him with Trevor Ariza (who is shooting absolutely lights out in the early season).  I remain positive on the Artest for Ariza psuedo-trade, and I don't want to go over why again, but it would be foolish to say that Houston isn't getting the better end of the deal so far in this young season.  Regardless of why you think it took the Lakers 7 games to dispatch the Rockets in last year's playoffs (complacency, boredom, etc), those factors are all very much in play for this game.  2nd night of a back to back?  Against a team that doesn't look formidable on paper?  A team that's given the Lakers problems in the recent past?  Yeah, I'm scared of this game.

On paper, I shouldn't be scared.  The Lakers size advantage here is ridiculous.  The Rockets starting center is 6' freaking 6".  They don't have a single guy on their active roster over 6'9".  The Lakers should be able to kill this team in the middle, with Bynum having a field day and the Lakers dominating the glass.  But we've seen it not happen far too often to assume that it will happen in this game.  Also, there's the little fact that the Rockets employ two of what I like to call Lakers' Kryptonite.  I'm speaking of course, of the quick guard.  Houston has Aaron Brooks, who is one of the quickest guards in the league, and Kyle Lowry off the bench.  Lowry isn't super quick, but he is super strong and above average in quickness, capable of barreling into the lane for easy points.  Brooks is 5'9", but can still get his shot up on anybody.  The Rockets will treat the Lakers to a steady dose of pick and roll, with a lot of kick outs to open three point shots.  As mentioned above, the Rockets love them some 3 point shots, and that love is mutual.

The most interesting factor about this game will be how Artest and Ariza handle going up against their former clubs.  Both players have, in their minds at least, reason to feel slighted and thus might be playing this game with a chip on their shoulder.  Artest has already stated that he won't be trying to score against the Rockets at all, he'll just be looking to shut someone down.  Ariza, on the other hand, has been white-hot on offense and will be looking to show the Lakers they made a big mistake by not waiting to pull the trigger on the Artest signing.  If Ariza can keep his emotions in check and play within himself, he'll probably have a decent game, even with Artest hounding him.  But if he lets the moment get to him, this could be something that is advantage Lakers.

Two road wins on a back to back would go a long way towards dissipating any negative vibes the Lakers have from their sloppy start to the season.  Anything less, and there will be even more "Are the Lakers going to be OK?" talk.