Hmmm... sooo... what's this odd feeling pervading throughout Lakerland at the moment? Is it... a sense of... losing? Multiple games in a row!? *checks ESPN*
Yep, we seem to be on a three-game losing streak, only the second of the Kobe Bryant-Pau Gasol era. Feels strange, doesn't it? Unfortunately, that's what happens when a team misreads their schedule (as I did yesterday - sorry for the lack of previewage for Memphis, folks), and decides to go on holiday about... seven months too early? Thankfully, a three-game losing streak isn't anything new for the Los Angeles Lakers. They experienced one last year, and went on to win a championship. And hey, at least we're not Miami fans, right?
The Lakers' uninspired play of late is hardly anything new for somebody who didn't just jump on the bandwagon this season, expecting the Lakers to win every game because TEH NBA IZ RIGGED!!!11!; and thus Lakerdom's alert status should still be somewhere around amber. As I said, a three-game losing streak is nothing extraordinary, not even for the defending back-to-back champs. A four-game losing streak, however, would seem more worrying, no matter how arbitrary the extra one game may appear.
Aaaannddd that brings us to our mortal nemesis for the night; ladies and gentlemen, yooouuuurrrr Houston Rockets!
The Houston Rockets, much-touted coming into the 2010-2011 season, stuttered just a tiny bit coming out of the gate, losing their first five games in a row (including an opening-night nailbiter against the Lakers) before a much-needed break against the Minnesota
D-Leaguers Timberwolves allowed them to finally put a win on the schedule. Since then, they've played mediocre but passable ball, winning five of their last 12 games. By no means are they a team that should beat the Lakers, but neither were the Grizzlies or the Pacers, or even the Jazz for that matter.
The Rockets initially look like a team that's better than their record indicates, as a cursory glance at their per-game stats will tell you that they rank 6th in the league in points per game and 5th in both rebounds and assists, but a lot of that is due to the high pace that they play at, 96 possessions per game, good for fourth in the league. Houston's defensive rebounding rate is pretty bad, and their offensive rebound rate is only slightly above-average. They do have a very strong assist rate, although it doesn't lead to a particularly great rate of conversion - their True Shooting is dead average, good for 15th in the league at 54.4%.
The Houston offense is severely hampered by Aaron Brooks' absence due to ankle injury (Derek Fisher, and Laker fans the world over, are breathing a sigh of relief right now), particularly against Los Angeles, where Brooks' speed and penetration ability have allowed him to effectively break down the Lakers' defense (not that there's much to break down these days). In his place, Kyle Lowry is starting at point guard. He is decent but unexceptional and one of the weaker starting point guards in the League. Backing him up is the rookie out of Wake Forest, Ishmael Smith, who has turned out decently considering he went undrafted. Nonetheless, with Brooks out, the point guard position is not a glaring weakness for the Lakers to worry about, at least for one game.
Starting at the two for the Rockets is Kevin Martin, an efficient scorer who is decent at getting to the line and deadly from deep. Kobe cannot simply take the game off on defense tonight, or Martin will happily light up the Lakers from behind the arc - though Ron Artest and Matt Barnes will likely see stretches on Martin. Backing Martin up is Courtney Lee, who hasn't really lived up to his rookie potential, going from starting for the Magic in the '09 Finals to averaging 17 minutes a game for the 5-12 Rockets. He has been on fire from deep this season, however, ensuring that the Lakers will have no breaks when it comes to defending the two-guard position.
At wing, the Rockets trot out Shane Battier, who is nothing special offensively but realises it, to their benefit; and Chase Budinger, a sophomore who gets by on hustle, and has had good games against the Lakers in the past. Battier will probably be Kobe's to guard, so as to give him some relief on the defensive end, but letting Kobe guard Budinger isn't a good idea, as it doesn't seem like Kobe is willing to guard anybody who has the propensity to cut right now. Neither of them are a threat from deep, but Budinger and Battier both can weasel their way into gaps in the defense and must be watched.
Starting at power forward for Houston is Luis Scola, who has been simply insane ever since his standout performance at the World Championships in the summer, averaging a near 20/10 whilst being arguably the Rockets' best player and one of the best fours in the league this season. The matchup between Scola and Lamar Odom, two of the best bigs at the FIBA Worlds, should certainly be interesting to watch. When Scola takes a breather, the Lakers have little chance to rest, as his backup Chuck Hayes, albeit undersized, is an offensive rebound machine. It's imperative that the Lakers keep a body on him at all times.
As of the time of writing, there's nothing saying Yao Ming, out with a bone bruise since the 12th of November, will be playing, and thus Brad Miller is likely to be starting at center for the Rockets. Miller is a smart, solid vet who plays within the Rockets' system and fills his role in a competent but unexceptional manner. At 34, he's far from athletic, but he is a very good three point shooter, at 50% from behind the arc on the season, and can draw the Laker bigs out of the paint. Backing up Miller is former Knicks draft pick Jordan Hill. He has played solidly in his run during Yao's absence, but still hasn't lived up to his draft position. Hill is young and athletic, and has good game on the offensive boards, but isn't an individual scoring threat.
Defensively, the Rockets are pretty bad, their 107.5 defensive efficiency being sixth-worst in the league. They allow quite a few offensive boards, they absolutely do not force turnovers, and teams don't really struggle to convert shots against them. The number of points the Lakers put up on the board, as per usual, will be primarily governed by Pau's effectiveness and whether or not the Lakers feel like running their offense tonight. Battier will try to guard Kobe, and while there isn't really any 'succeeding', he may limit Kobe. The Rockets may also try Martin on Kobe, which they did for stretches on opening night.
A key tonight will be Pau Gasol. He played 45 minutes last night, the latest in a season of high minute totals for him due to Bynum's absence. Phil has come out and said the Lakers are not going to sign an extra big man, so the only way in which Pau will be able to obtain some rest is if the Lakers return to blowing their opponents out. Not likely, tonight, on the rear end of a back-to-back. Pau will simply have to fight through the exhaustion if the Lakers want to run their offense, as it completely relies on him. Maybe next year, Pau can sit out the preseason and training camp to watch the soccer, whilst Andrew holds the fort single-handedly, as a reward. As for now, he'll have to bear with it.
I hate to say it, but this game smells like a loss for me. The Laker defense has been MIA most of this season, and the offense relies on an active Pau to succeed. There's simply no way Pau can put up a good show on the back-end of playing 45 minutes, so the two logical avenues for winning this game are either a trademark 'fuck you, losing streak' lockdown defensive performance or a trademark Kobe 'fuck you, losing' game. Both of these are possible, but whenever they're the first option for winning a game, something's not right. Of course, the Lakers could also pull out this game with a random role player going off for 20, or by getting red-hot from deep, but that's entirely unsustainable.
In conclusion: Get back here already, Andrew Bynum.