Under the best of circumstances, conventional wisdom dictated the Lakers would require some time to jell. With so many new faces (and at the time, a new offense, which eventually sparked the decision for a new coach), instant chemistry would be a tall order. However, the opening 17 games on the schedule were, in theory, a reprieve of sorts. Home-heavy with few games against contenders from either conference, this slate of contests was made to be exploited ... or frittered away through poor execution, inconsistent play, injuries and periodically middling energy, whichever makes the most sense.
The Lakers are now 8-9 and staring down nine December road games. The first comes against the Houston Rockets, a similarly rebuilt team tasked with coming together on the fly. After a slow start, they're seemingly in better sync these days, having won four of their past five games. Not that the Lakers have earned the right to take any team lightly -- just ask the Orlando Magic -- but Houston may offer a tougher contest than I certainly figured a month ago.
For more perspective on the Rockets, I sent some questions to Rahat Huq, who covers the team for the TrueHoop network's Red94 blog. Below are his responses.
Andy Kamenetzky: When these teams met at Staples Center on Nov. 17 for an eventual Rockets loss, Houston was 3-6 heading into the game. They're now 8-8. What's happened to explain this?
Rahat Huq: Offensively, the Rockets have been playing out of their minds, averaging 113 ppg on 49 percent shooting overall (46 percent from deep) during their current five-game home winning streak. They’ve also gotten consistent contributions across the board, with all five starters in double figures in each of their past three home games. In the most recent outing against Utah, seven Rockets finished with at least 13.
Plus, third-year forward Patrick Patterson has been a revelation. The Kentucky product has put in at least 20 points in four of Houston’s past five games, scoring from an assortment of spots, including the corner 3. In his past 10 games, Patterson has averaged 17 ppg on 55 percent shooting from the field and 43 percent from behind the arc.
AK: How are James Harden and Jeremy Lin developing as a backcourt tandem, particularly in ways that could cause problems for the Lakers?
RH: It’s been a learning process thus far with both players sharing the same strengths (serving as the ball handler in the high screen pick-and-roll) while having to share the game ball. Because of his shooting woes, Lin has often looked lost when Harden has run the offense, standing around as a spot-up shooter. But Harden, being the superior player, has gotten the majority of the reps at initiating the offense.
Things looked different Saturday night when Lin seemed to have the ball more often than usual, and he delivered to the tune of 19 points (8-for-14 FG) and eight assists. He’d run to the rim making decisive reads, finishing inside or kicking out to open teammates. Harden, on the other hand, operated mainly from the kick-out, getting to the lane by pump faking defenders paying respect to his jumper. The team looked like a machine.
Time will tell whether Saturday night’s game plan was an aberration or a more concerted effort to redirect the offense, but I do feel the team is better when Harden is serving as a natural 2 and with Lin as the true point guard.
AK: Omer Asik is developing into one of the better defensive centers in the league, but when the Rockets have the ball, can he do enough to occupy Howard and limit Dwight's ability to cover for his teammates?
RH: Believe it or not, for his defensive reputation, Asik is a huge part of what the Rockets do offensively. He’s the primary screen man in an offense that seems to feature nothing but screen-and-rolls. Since Asik isn’t exactly a 2004 Amar'e Stoudemire, the Rockets run more action after the initial pick, with the big Turk often delivering an interior pass to the power forward after receiving the first pass off the roll. Asik’s passing has come as a very pleasant surprise.
Houston has also looked to "O" at times in the post -- just out of sheer necessity -- resulting in mixed outcomes. Asik can score down there, but it's the ugliest play in basketball. Rockets observers likely hope this isn’t a set featured too heavily Tuesday night, because with Dwight Howard behind him, most of those attempts could end up swatted into the fifth row.
AK: Do you expect Harden or Chandler Parsons to spend more time checking Kobe, and either way, how does it go?
Parsons is Houston’s anointed "stopper" and thus, he will be the man assigned the task of slowing down Bryant, at least when it matters. Parsons has the length, smarts and foot speed to make life difficult for the Lakers star (as we saw last season in their Toyota Center meeting), but Bryant is Bryant and seemingly better than ever.
Kobe’s been going to the pick-and-roll more often than ever (with 28 percent of his possessions operating out of that play, up from 12 percent last year), and it's paid off with a league-leading 133 points from that set. Parsons will need help from his teammates to keep things at bay. I think Kobe gets at least 30 on over 50 percent shooting. The key for Houston will be limiting everyone else.
AK: And finally, the prediction?
RH: The young Rockets are at home, where they’re feeling good. They also -- shockingly -- have a better record than the Lakers by a hair. I think Houston continues its dominance at home, taking care of the Lakers on Tuesday night.