With the initial disappointment of the loss of Kobe Bryant behind them, the Lakers must continue their winning ways in tonight’s season finale versus the Houston Rockets. It may seem crazy to see the phrase “winning ways” in the same sentence as this year’s team, but I remind you of the fact that these Lakers have gone 27-12 since that late-January road loss at Memphis. The progress has been difficult to recognize due to the immense hole they dug for themselves, but that’s a .692 winning percentage over the past three months.
Bryant’s season-long exploits carried a battered team during a time when seemingly every core player was either hurt or significantly laboring, but the most significant turnaround came along with the improved health of Dwight Howard and return of Pau Gasol. Unfortunately, Steve Nash is also still suffering from leg/hip pain (will not play tonight), and his status for the start of the playoffs is unknown. It’s a shame we may never see this core group at full strength, but it’s also fantastic to see the team continue fighting off adversity. If they play the type of disciplined, team-oriented basketball they employed during their hard-fought victory over the San Antonio Spurs, this team can still look a lot closer to the team everyone expected heading into the year.
Thankfully, the Lakers finally realized (accepted) both Howard and Gasol could not only co-exist, but actually excel while playing together. Duplicating the overall effort against Houston, most importantly on the defensive end, would be the perfect final test of the season. Of course, if the Utah Jazz lose to Memphis Grizzlies (today), the Lakers qualify for the playoffs no matter the outcome. That said, you never want to rely upon another team to establish your destiny, and a victory over the Rockets would actually mean the 7th seed and a 1st-round date with those same San Antonio Spurs.
Frontcourt: The Lakers have actually done a good job of keeping the normally rebound-hungry Omer Asik four rebounds (7.7 per game) below his season average of 11.7 boards per game. Howard and Gasol will need to continue this trend with both Asik and starting power forward Greg Smith. Houston shoots a ton of 3-pointers, so rebounds will also have to be a total team focus, as long shots often result in long rebounds.
Chandler Parsons has developed into a nice, young small forward. In his second season, Parsons is averaging 15.4 points, 3.5 assists and 5.3 rebounds per game. He’s not only a threat in the open court and around the rim, but Parsons also averages over five three-point attempts per game while making just under 39 percent. Terrence Jones is another reserve big man that provides a tremendous amount of energy and effort off Houston’s bench. He provides added shot-blocking ability, as he’s swatted 13 shots in his last three games.
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Backcourt: Even though James Harden isn’t likely to garner any MVP consideration, the 4th-year playmaking shooting guard has carried this team to an impressive and surprising (if we’re being honest) playoff spot, when no one expected them to do much of anything. His 26 PPG, 5.9 APG, 4.8 RPG are comparable with the best shooting guards in the league. It’s one thing for Harden to knock down the 3-point shot (37 percent), but he also does a ton of his damage by penetrating and manipulating defenders into fouls. Harden leads the league in free throw attempts (10.1 per game), while making 85 percent.
Jeremy Lin may not have reached the “Linsanity” height of last season, but he’s put together a all-around solid year, and seems to be getting stronger as the season is coming to a close. Harden has taken more of the playmaking role, permitting Lin to act as a more traditional scorer. In Lin’s last five games, he’s averaging 17.6 PPG, five APG, and three RPG. As we’ve seen in the past, Carlos Delfino is a definite three-point threat. Delfino averages over six attempts from beyond the arc while knocking down just under 38 percent on the year.
Keys to Lakers’ Victory:
Defend In Transition AND The Three-Point Line- The Rockets have far too many young athletes to permit this game to turn into a track meet. The Lakers must limit their turnovers and make sure to get back in all transition opportunities.
Maintain Focus, Continue To Feed The Post- The Lakers must also avoid the urge to get into a three-point shooting match with the Rockets. Even if the outside shot is falling, they need to avoid playing into Houston’s game plan. Continue running the offense through Gasol, and feed the post whenever possible. That’s the best way to slow a team like the Rockets down. Not coincidentally, that’s also the best opportunity this team has to be successful moving forward.
Houston Rockets (45-36) vs. Los Angeles Lakers (44-37)
7:30 PM PST, April 17, 2013
Staples Center, Los Angeles, CA
TV: TWC SN, ESPN
Radio: 710 ESPN (English) / 1330 ESPN (Spanish)
Rockets’ Projected Starting Lineup:
PG: Jeremy Lin
SG: James Harden
SF: Chandler Parsons
PF: Greg Smith
C: Omer Asik
Key Reserves: SF- Carlos Delfino, PF- Terrence Jones, SG- Francisco Garcia, PG- Patrick Beverly