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Lakers vs. Rockets Preview: Luke Walton, Kyle Kuzma outline keys to trying to slow James Harden

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LeBron James and the Lakers are somehow only a game out of the Western Conference’s top spot. If they want to keep up, they’ll have to take care of business against inferior teams.

Houston Rockets v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

The Los Angeles Lakers have the unenviable task of defending James Harden and the Houston Rockets in their home city, where they expect to have to overcome whistles as much as talent. Thanks to an improved defense and LeBron James being LeBron James, they are a single game out of the top spot in the Western Conference.

If they want that to continue, they’ll have to take care of business against a struggling Houston team, regardless of how the whistles might blow. Luke Walton knows what the Lakers are up against.

“With the way the rules are now, you can’t touch anybody, and Harden is as skilled as anybody in our league offensively. He’s a brilliant shooter, his go-to moves are shots you normally want people taking,” Walton said.

Walton specifically gave Harden’s step-back fadeaway as an example of a shot defenses would normally be all right with but that Harden can make at a high clip, and as a result, he said the Lakers will defend him a little differently.

“You’ve got to get all over him to take that away,” Walton said.

The only problem with that strategy is that it leads to another problem: Allowing Harden to draw the fouls he’s so good at getting defenders whistled for.

“When he drives it’s natural to get physical with somebody,” Walton said. “He’s a nightmare matchup for every team, but we’ve got to be disciplined, we’ve got to keep him off the foul line.”

Kyle Kuzma, who might spend a good portion of the game chasing Harden around screens with Brandon Ingram still out, also offered up his thoughts on what needs to be done in such a tough matchup.

“They key is not to foul,” Kuzma said, which is easier said than done with Harden, who draws an average of 9.4 free-throw attempts per game (the second-most in the NBA).

Kuzma also pointed out that the Lakers need to try to force Harden towards help at the rim or force him to shoot from mid-range.

“Once he gets cooking on the three it’s tough to guard him, and if he’s getting foul calls he’s awfully tough to guard. It’s really about just being persistent on not trying to foul,” Kuzma said.

Kuzma, Josh Hart and whoever else gets the assignment of tailing Harden cannot afford to get into foul trouble on most nights, but with Ingram still ailing from a sprained ankle and not traveling with the team to Houston, there are not enough able wing defenders to make up for the absences foul issues force on a rotation.

Fortunately for the Lakers, Clint Capela’s lack of an outside touch allows for the drop coverage they’ve relied upon in pick-and-roll defense. Unfortunately for the Lakers, Harden and Chris Paul are two of the NBA’s absolute best at shooting off the dribble — the type of shot that drop coverage gives up in order to not leave itself open elsewhere.

How the Lakers fare against Harden and these types of situations will go a long way in deciding how they’ll perform offensively, too. As they still struggle in the half court, they cannot afford to take the ball out of the net, or even to start their offensive possessions from essentially a standstill when guys attempt free throws.

In order to get out in transition, the Lakers will need stops of the live-ball variety (rebounds and turnovers). Whether or not they’re able to do that will decide their ability to keep up with those other teams atop the Western Conference.

Tip-off for this game is 5:00 PM PST, and it can be watched nationally on TNT.