In a game that has been highly anticipated since the release of the NBA schedule in the summer, Dwight Howard faces the team that he chose to leave for the first time Thursday night when the Los Angeles Lakers come to Toyota Center to take on the red-hot Houston Rockets (if you’re looking to go to the game, you can still find Houston Rockets tickets available.) While all the focus had been on Howard’s relationship with Kobe Bryant, and all the drama that happened in the Lakers locker room last season, Bryant will not be on the court as he continues to recover from his achilles injury.
In Bryant’s absence, the Lakers are off to a 2-3 start, but have shown signs of potentially being a dangerous team on the offensive end. The Lakers are currently in the Top 10 in points scored per game, at 100.8, while the Rockets rank 4th in the NBA at 109.4 points. However, the downfall for the Lakers in the early going is on the defensive side(a trademark for any Mike D’Antoni coached teams) as they are giving up 109 points each game(good for 2nd-worst in the league).
MM: First things first, what is the update on Kobe Bryant, and when can we realistically discuss seeing him back in action?
JR: Lakers fans and media are as up in the air for Bryant’s return as regular fans. Bryant stated during training camp he’d need 3 good weeks of conditioning before he’d be ready to go. Last week, he said he had a great week of conditioning and that could be considered one of those three weeks. Assuming this week and next week are equally good, that has Bryant back around Thanksgiving. Realistically, late-November, early-December seem most reasonable with Christmas Day being the latest.
MM: All eyes will be on Dwight Howard tonight as he faces his former team. The Lakers didn’t do much to replace him, so how do they match up with Howard, as well as James Harden, who’s eyes will light up when he sees Steve Blake, Nick Young, or Jodie Meeks guarding him?
JR: In terms of Howard, I expect him to have a big game. Chris Kaman and Pau Gasol, who have seen a bulk of the minutes at center, neither of them will be able to slow down Dwight, or Omer Asik for that matter. In all, the Lakers are anemic defensively. James Harden will also have little resistance. Steve Blake, a natural point guard, has been starting at the shooting guard spot this season, but that may change considering the matchup. Xavier Henry, Nick Young, and Jodie Meeks will see a bulk of the minutes on Harden, but I’d be surprised if any of them slowed him down.
MM: Regardless of the whole Dwight-Drama situation and exit from the Lakers, it appears that they have quietly built a roster that fits a Mike D’Antoni system. The bad news is, the Rockets play at the exact same tempo. Is the Lakers only shot to win tonight is if they outscore the high-flying Houston squad?
JR: Essentially, yes. The Lakers don’t have much of defensive presence, especially on the perimeter. Their strength is depth, which they arguably have the most of in the league. Mike D’Antoni has consistently went 11 deep for their rotation and no player is averaging even 30 minutes a game. As you said, this is a D’Antoni squad: heavy on wing play, light on traditional big men. Wes Johnson and Shawne Williams have seen big minutes at the power forward position, furthermore highlighting D’Antoni’s small ball style. But to directly address the question, yes, the Lakers will have to simply out-score each opponent this year as there’s no defense to rely on.
JR: I’d be surprised if the Lakers kept this close. If they do, it’ll likely be a result of our bench playing out of their minds, which they’ve seemed to do much more often than not this year. Even then, Dwight/Harden/Parsons/Asik is too much for us. In LA, it might be a different story, but in Houston, the Rockets easily take this 105-89.