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Preview: Lakers vs. Rockets, Game 1

Here at SS&R, we've been quite busy over the last couple of days, bringing you all kinds of insight, analysis, and predictions for the upcoming series. If you haven't caught all that, be sure to read back over the last couple of days — there's tons of good stuff.

If you have been paying attention, then a full blown Game 1 Preview would simply be a rehash of what we've been talking about for the last few days. So instead, as a preview for Game 1, I bring you a list of things to watch for as the Lakers try to start this series on the right foot — twelve things, to be exact, that will give you an early indication as to how this series is going to play out. Can the Lakers establish themselves early and carry that through to a strong series win, or will they let Houston make it tougher for them than it should be?

Click on through to

Mindset and Mentality

I've written more than once, in more than one way, that this series is the Lakers' to lose, and how it plays out depends more on the mindset and mentality that the Lakers bring, starting with tonight. Look for that early, as the Lakers have been off for a full week, and will really need to come out with energy and focus in order to shake off the rust of such a long rest.

End of the Third, Beginning of the Fourth

No one is likely to be surprised if the Lakers sport a significant lead approaching the end of the third quarter. If that's the case, however, pay close attention — that's precisely the situation in which they relaxed and let Utah back in the game, over and over, in the first round. They've talked a lot of talk about improving in that area. Will they deliver tonight?

Shot Selection

The Rockets' defense is among the best in the league, but as DexterFishmore noted, it isn't about blocking shots, getting steals, or otherwise creating turnovers. It's about forcing opponents into bad shots, and in particular, jumpshots. The Lakers can't play into the Rockets' hands. They must continue to attack the rim, and when taking jumpshots, they must be open shots created by crisp, quick ball movement. If the ball movement stagnates and the Lakers start taking a lot of tough, contested jumpshots, that will be a sign of the Rockets getting their way.

Rebounds and Second-Chance Opportunities

As was also pointed out by DexterFishmore, the Rockets' defense doesn't allow a lot of second-chance opportunities. They force you into bad shots, and they clean up on the offensive boards. That said, the Lakers have done very well on the offensive boards against Houston this year. While Houston's opponents only collect offensive rebounds on 25% of their misses, L.A. has come up with an impressive 31% of missed shots. If they can continue this dominance of the offensive glass, Houston's defense will suffer.

Andrew Bynum

He's back to playing against a more traditional center, and he should be motivated by the challenge of playing against Yao Ming. Will he play defense and go hard after rebounds, or will he continue to think first about his own offensive game? If he can focus on the defensive end and let the offense come to him, good things will happen for the Lakers.

Kobe vs. the "Stoppers"

Okay, so there is no such thing as a "Kobe stopper," and Artest and Battier would be the first to tell you that. Nonetheless, no team has ever been able to throw the kind of wing defenders at Kobe that the Rockets have. Will Artest spend much time on Kobe, or will they save him for the offensive end? Will we get another trash talking session?

More importantly to Laker fans: Will Kobe be baited into gunning it in an effort to prove that he's unstoppable, or will he let the game come to him, take what is available, and find his teammates rather than forcing up bad shots? If my predictions are still worth anything, don't expect Kobe to go out there trying to prove a point — he's grown out of that, and these days, his only motivation is to get the win.

If It's Close...

Houston simply doesn't have a reliable late-game option; L.A., on the other hand, has the best late-game option in existence. Should the game be close late, the advantage will be the Lakers'.

Ariza vs. Artest

Ariza is a very good defender, but Artest is huge, and may be too much for Ariza to handle. While Kobe may be a better option for defending Artest, it may actually be smarter to let Artest have that matchup. Ariza has the quickness to stay in front of Artest, and his quick hands will punish Artest if he tries to handle the ball too much. But more importantly, sparing Kobe the hard work of defending someone as big, heavy, and physical as Ron Ron will enable him to be better on offense — and besides, baiting Ron Ron into a chuck-fest isn't necessarily a bad thing. If Artest decides to take over, he might punish us here or there, even help steal a game — but overall, Artest taking over is a Good Thing™ for the Lakers, defensively.

Introducing Luis Scola

The first round saw Scola's true arrival on the scene. Surely Rockets fans weren't that surprised, but the rest of the league is talking about Scola in ways they never have before. He's a high-effort player, and smart, and he frequently punished the Blazers for overplaying Yao Ming. That said, Lamar Odom should prove an equally difficult matchup for Scola, on both ends of the court. Whichever player gets the better of this matchup may have a significant impact on this series.

Anyone Seen PJ's Timeouts? He's Looking for Them

That's right, you might just see a Phil Jackson timeout or two in this game. An important factor will be how the bench bounces back from their poor play against Houston. For those lamenting the Lakers' first round tendency to give away large leads in the second half, it's worth pointing out that the bench was almost always on the court when this happened. The "Mob" needs to take credit for this, and they need to start this series on the right foot and regain their confidence.

That said, Phil Jackson needs to take his share of the blame — and he has. Expect him to have less patience for his bench players if they stop playing and start giving away leads. I want to see a short leash, and I think it goes without saying that if PJ lets his bench "play through" another big lead giveaway, there are going to be a lot of angry Laker fans.

Oh Yeah, That Tall Guy — What's His Name?

Yao Ming is a tough cover for any team, simply because there aren't any other seven-and-a-half-footers out there that can play at Yao's level. How often does a player have a size advantage over Andrew Bynum? (Answer: 4 times a year, plus the playoffs, if the Lakers and Rockets meet.)

Bynum may get his shot at defending Yao one-on-one, playing him from behind. When Portland tried this, Yao scored over his defender at will, putting together a perfect shooting game and destroying the Trail Blazers. If Bynum fails to do much better, the Lakers will have to front Yao. Fortunately, the length and quickness of Bynum, Gasol, and Odom can make it tough for Houston to get the ball to Yao Ming — and if they struggle on the entry pass, they'll go entire stretches where they don't get the ball in to their big man.

This is the key matchup of the game, defensively, because everything runs through Yao. I'm not convinced we can shut him down, but if we can significantly hinder him, Houston is more or less screwed. Look for the Lakers to take at least this particular matchup quite seriously.

Run, Forrest Lakers, Run!

The Rockets want to slow it down, as slow as humanly possible. They'd love to get 20+ seconds out of every possession. The Lakers, on the other hand, should look to run the ball down Houston's (and specifically, Yao's) throat. This isn't make or break — as DexterFishmore pointed out, the Lakers won the season series every which way, including fast- and slow-paced games. But if Houston slows the game down, their odds, while still not great, certainly improve. On the other hand, if L.A. gets out and runs, it's, "[insert lame Apollo 13 joke here]"

Your Take?

Those are some key things that I'll be watching in this game, and as the series goes forward. They're all areas in which the Lakers need to establish a positive trend, and I'm looking for the Lakers to establish an edge in these areas from the opening tip.

How about you? What are you looking for in Game 1? What will you consider telltale signs of things going well, or poorly? Sound off in the comments, and then stick around — the live GameThread kicks off at 5:00 p.m. PDT today!

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