Five things to watch in Lakers-Houston matchup
1. Will the Lakers come out with more energy?
The stakes against Houston (5-12) Wednesday night aren't as high as when the Lakers hosted the Rockets in a nail-biting, hair-wrenching seven-game series in the 2009 Western Conference semifinals. But it's rare for the Lakers (13-5) to lose three consecutive games and even rarer for the team to lose four straight, the last time happening in April 2007.
It's very difficult to draw definitive big-picture conclusions in the first quarter of the season, namely because there are so many more games to go. It's not a stretch to argue that tonight's game bodes importance simply so the Lakers can stop the damage being done in the past week. A Lakers win or loss won't severely help or worsen their current struggles, but prolonged losing will yield higher scrutiny, exposing team frustrations it may have been able to minimize.
Fortunately for the Lakers, they face the Rockets (5-12), who have lost their past four games against the Lakers in Toyota Center.
2. The Lakers won't have to worry about defending speedy guard Aaron Brooks.
That should bring some solace to Derek Fisher and Steve Blake, who were repeatedly exposed by Memphis guard Mike Conley, Indiana guards Darren Collison and T.J. Ford and Utah guard Deron Williams in the Lakers' past three losses. As much as some want to bag on Fisher, most if not all of his defensive lapses are partly rooted in the team itself not helping him out on screen and rolls and in double teams. Considering Brooks burned the Lakers for 24 points on seven-of-16 shooting in the season opener, his continuous absence because of a sprained left ankle should make the Lakers' defensive responsibility easier this time around.
That doesn't mean, however, this warrants them a day off. Aside from the obvious want to hone in on their rotations, the Lakers should also be aware of Houston guard Kyle Lowry, who has averaged 7.3 assists since replacing Brooks at the point. Brooks plays with more quickness, but Lowry is still tenacious and can expose the Lakers' poor D with his playmaking abilities.
3. Shane Battier vs. Kobe Bryant always features a chess match.
Battier, the No Stats All-Star, enters any contest against Bryant knowing he won't fully limit him, but he'll consider it a job well done if he makes him work for his points and his production comes at the expense of everyone else. As much pleasure as Bryant has gotten out of this matchup over the years, he needs to stop falling into that trap. With the Lakers lacking much offensive rhythm and ball movement, the last thing the team can afford is Bryant resorting into his score-at-all-costs mode. Lakers Coach Phil Jackson pinned that imbalance on his teammates as well, saying they're responsible for passing the ball to Bryant. Lakers fans long argue whether these instances point to Bryant's scoring mentality, team passivity or a combination of both. Frankly, it all depends on what is happening in each game. The mechanics are rather simple: When Bryant has the hot hand, let him ride it out. When his shots aren't falling, it's time to switch from isolation to the triangle.
4. Lamar Odom may need to produce more.Don't take this the wrong way. Odom has played consistently, has played heavy minutes with Pau Gasol during Andrew Bynum's absence and has never used the soreness in his right foot as an excuse. But with Gasol becoming more and more visibly tired, Odom might be the solution in easing the workload off him. It's not particularly fair to Odom, but it's probably the most practical, considering Derrick Caracter has shown a tremendous learning curve.
5. Will the Lakers go small?With Yao Ming remaining absent from the lineup and the team's desire to rest Gasol, this might be a feasible option. Jackson has at times played Ron Artest and Matt Barnes at power forward, but that takes away the Lakers' post presence. The Houston Chronicle's Jonathan Feigen remarks that strategy could give the Rockets fits in playing Brad Miller and Jordan Hill off the bench. That lineup could also make it easier to guard Kevin Martin, who's shot only 30.8% in his past four games but lit up the Lakers in the season opener with 26 points.
I also talk about the Lakers with Don Best TV's Pat Williams in the video below.
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Photo: Lakers forward Lamar Odom tries to keep his balance as he looks for a teammate after beating Rockets center Brad Miller to a rebound in the Lakers' season opener on Oct. 26. Odom was called for a foul on the play. Credit: Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times.