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Lakers-Rockets Preview: And So We Begin

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A year ago, the Lakers convened on the Staples Center floor to admire their new championship banner, receive their rings and, as an afterthought, play an actual game. The league's schedule gnomes did them the courtesy of assigning the Clippers as their opponent that night. There was accordingly zero danger that the pregame merrymaking would distract them to the point of suffering a home loss right out of the gate.

This time around, the gnomes haven't been so courteous. There will once again be rings and a banner, maybe an ice-cream cake, and with all that a final moment to reflect on the triumphs of last season. But the team that eventually emerges from the visitors' locker room will be a real opponent, with talent and hostile intent. In town are the Houston Rockets, who look much more formidable than they did when we last saw them.

The big news, literally [Ed. note: see what I did? Professional at work here!], is the return of Yao Ming. Yao last appeared in a game that counted 536 days ago. That was May 8, 2009, the night the Rockets lost to the Lakers in Game Three of the Western Conference semifinals, in the course of which Yao broke a bone in his left foot. It's been a long road back for the gargantuan center, and it'll be great to see him playing again. Alongside him are faces both new and familiar who make Houston an adversary the Lakers will need to take seriously once the cake's been eaten and the ball's been tossed up.

Let's briefly recap what's up in Rocketland these days, aside from Yao's head. [Ed. note: see what I di-... never mind.] Kevin Martin, who came over from Sacramento last spring in a midseason trade for Carl Landry, is their new shooting guard. This will be the first time he's faced the Lakers in Rocket red. Our old friend Trevor Ariza is no longer around, having been shipped to New Orleans in an offseason trade. The Ariza deal brought back Courtney Lee, whom you'll remember as the guy who juuuust missed an alley-oop that could've beat the Lakers in Game Two of the 2009 Finals. Brad Miller was added as a free agent, and Kentucky product Patrick Patterson was picked up in the draft.

Tally it all up, and this is what their depth chart looks like.

Starter

Reserve

PG

Aaron Brooks

Kyle Lowry *

SG

Kevin Martin

Courtney Lee

SF

Shane Battier

Chase Budinger

PF

Luis Scola

Jordan Hill / Jared Jeffries

C

Yao Ming

Chuck Hayes

I broke out the asterisk machine for Lowry because he's injured. He's been out with back spasms, and word is he won't play tonight. In his place we might see Ishmael Smith, a small but quick rookie from Wake Forest whom Basketball Prospectus has dubbed "Rocket Ishmael."

When the Lakers are on defense, the challenges will begin up top with Brooks. He's not an All-Star, but he does have a well-rounded offensive repertoire by which he can score on isolations, pick-and-roll sets or spot-up jumpers. If you've ever watched Derek Fisher try to guard him, you know it's a ghastly spectacle. Brooks is 25 years old and very fast. Fish is 36 and has trouble keeping up with fatties driving Rascal scooters. It's a bad combo.

Historically, the Laker approach to this quandary has been: let Brooks reduce Fish to smoldering ashes and stay home on everyone else. That's probably what we'll see for the most part tonight, but as usual, if the game's close toward the end, Kobe Bryant will take the assignment. Until that time comes, Kobe will need to keep his eye on Martin, who can score both from midrange and behind the three-point line. Lee isn't nearly the same offensive threat as the two backcourt starters, so when he's in the game the pressure on the Lakers' perimeter D will relax.

We might also see Ron Artest check Martin at times, especially when Shane Battier's on the floor. Battier's such a low-usage player that it seems a waste to assign Ron to him. Martin gets a lot of his points at the line, and one of Ron's strengths as a defender is his low foul rate, so the matchup makes some sense for the Lakers.

Up front, the headline battle will be Yao vs. Pau. This is one of those games when it would be nice to have Andrew Bynum, but clearly watching soccer this past summer was more important. (I kid, I kid! Mostly.) Yao's that rare player who won't be bothered by Pau's length. I haven't seen any of the Rockets' preseason games so I won't pretend to know how Yao's looked. For what it's worth, his preseason scoring numbers have been decent - about 19 points per 40 minutes on 50% shooting. In any case, Rick Adelman is keeping him to a 24-minute-a-night pitch count for now, so we'll get a heavy dose of Chuck Hayes as well. The 6'6" Hayes is a disaster on offense who nonetheless scored 14 against the Lakers in a game last November.

When the Lakers have the rock, the focus will be on the familiar matchup of Kobe against Battier. Last season the two faced each other three times. In the first game, Kobe lit up Battier for 41 points. In the other two, Battier forced him into poor shooting nights. Martin, for his part, is a pretty bad defender. Whoever he's guarding, whether it's Artest or Shannon Brown or Matt Barnes, should be able to do work on him at the offensive end. Lowry, on the other hand, is an elite defender, so if indeed he's out that's a nice little break for the Laker O.

Last season the Rockets' defense kind of fell apart. They were 23rd in the NBA in defending two-point shots, 24th in defending threes, and without Yao they no longer owned the defensive glass as they had in 2008-09. Getting him back in the mix should improve their performance in all three categories. His size will help control the paint and allow the perimeter bros to stay home on shooters.

I'm expecting a close one tonight. The Lakers will have to gear down fast from the emotions of the ring ceremony. If they need a quarter or two to get their heads about them, they could well find themselves playing from behind. Don't get me wrong: I'm feeling a Laker win. I'd just be feeling it more if it were the Clips coming to dinner instead.

Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore.