Andrew Bynum is tall. The Rockets are not. Please throw him the ball.
The Lakers may have experienced a mini-revival Sunday night, but it's fair to say the Rockets have been a major pain in the proverbial tush, dating back to last season's unnecessarily competitive seven-game Western Conference Semi-Finals.
Maybe it's just the matchups, maybe the Rockets just get geeked when they see purple and gold. Whatever the case, here are five things to watch for in tonight's game:
In Houston's 101-91 win over the Lakers at Staples back on Nov. 15, it's easy to forget the home team started the game on a 16-2 run over the first five minutes-plus. Pessimists might note the Rockets then outscored L.A. by 24 the rest of the way, but I'm a sunny sort and would rather look at how they built the lead to blow. Andrew Bynum worked hard to get good early position on Chuck Hayes. The Lakers pounded the post with Bynum, Kobe, and Ron Artest, drawing fouls down low, effectively used their length to create turnovers and push the pace, but didn't rush possessions. Defensively, they laid off Hayes, allowing Bynum to aggressively try and cut off dribble penetration, and worked to get the right guys (meaning not Aaron Brooks) putting the ball on the floor.
The Rockets are wee, but still effective inside. Thanks to an offensive rebound rate (27.79) in the top third of the league and a solid transition game, only five teams take more shots at the rim than the Rockets (29.4). Carl Landry in particular has made a habit out of slaughtering the Lakers on their glass. Houston isn't an unusually strong team in the halfcourt, so limiting points off putbacks is huge.
Trevor Ariza may be scoring 16 points a night, but he's having to work hard to do it. Asked last season only to shoot (almost exclusively) open threes and slash to the basket, with Houston Ariza is trying to display a larger floor game, and the results haven't been universally elegant. 38% from the floor, 31% from downtown, a problem given he's taking over six a night. The Lakers need to force Ariza to put the ball on the floor and try to be a high volume shooter. If he comes through, so be it, but if Ariza is taking a lot of mid-range shots, that's good for the Lakers.
Led by Jordan Farmar's 24 points, the Lakers bench had easily their best game of the season Sunday night against Dallas. Pau Gasol's absence means there will be minutes available, even if Ron Artest gets back on the floor. In Landry and Chase Budinger (who could play tonight despite an ankle problem), Houston has productive players on their bench. Good things happen for the Rockets when Kyle Lowry plays. And so on. Sunday was nice, but the Lakers need consistency from their reserves, not just Periodically Massive Performances, and the Rockets provide another quality test.
Statistically the Rockets aren't quite the defensive stalwarts their reputation suggests, but have the quickness and intelligence to punish teams that don't make them work. If the Lakers eschew the extra pass, get wrapped up in three pointers without first probing the lane, or forget to put the Rockets in motion, they won't score all that many points in the halfcourt. The Rockets are too strong in their fundamentals, and more importantly work incredibly hard on that side of the ball. At the same time, good defense on the perimeter will likely provide the Lakers with plenty of good run-out chances. Houston shoots a ton of threes- make them miss, and L.A. likely can get out in the open floor.