The Los Angeles Lakers are hitting the road again after a one-game home stint, this time heading to Texas to attempt to upset the streaking Houston Rockets.
James Harden, Chris Paul and company have been spewing flames all season, and are currently riding a 14-game winning streak heading into their matchup with the Lakers, who have only won 10 games total this season.
The Rockets’ top-ranked offense that averages an absurd 113.8 points per 100 possessions would be a challenge even for the Lakers’ eighth-ranked defense any day, but will be extra difficult to contain with the absences of veterans like Brook Lopez, who will miss at least the next three weeks with an ankle injury, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who cannot leave California for the next several weeks due to a modified agreement in his legal matter.
It’s currently unknown who will start in the place of Lopez, who has disappointed on offense but still has the fourth-highest net rating of any Lakers player.
Lopez is also leading the league in shot contests per game (13.5) to contribute to a surprisingly stout Lakers defense that allows less points per 100 possessions while he is on the floor (102.7) than when he sits (103.6).
Caldwell-Pope will also leave big shoes to fill, ranking just behind Lopez’s net rating of -2.1 with a -2.2 of his own, which still ranks fifth among rotation players. However, Lakers head coach Luke Walton will have an easier time filling that thanks to the stellar production of rookie shooting guard Josh Hart.
The four-year Villanova product ranks first on the Lakers in net rating among rotation players, as the team has outscored their opponents by 1.2 points per 100 possessions during Hart’s minutes so far.
In his first NBA start last week against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Hart did an admirable job making LeBron James work while compiling his first career double-double with 11 points and 10 rebounds.
The Lakers will also need Julius Randle and Kyle Kuzma to help pick up the slack of their veteran absences if they want a chance to shock the Rockets, whether they remain a tandem off of the bench or if one of them slides into the starting role.
Lastly, the Lakers will need their last two second overall picks, Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball, to continue the roll they’ve been on lately. Over the last five games, Ball has averaged a near triple-double of 12.2 points, eight assists and seven rebounds, while more importantly shooting 46.2 percent from the floor and 38.5 percent from three as his shot looks to be coming around.
Ingram has averaged a cool 17.8 points and 50 percent from three over that same time frame, while also grabbing 6.4 rebounds and dishing 4.6 assists to boot as he continues to show he is far better than he demonstrated during his rookie season.
The bad news for the Lakers is that they could get all of those things to continue and then some against Houston and it might not matter against the buzzsaw that is the Rockets.
Harden has played like a legitimate MVP candidate and might currently be the favorite to win in, while Paul is shooting the most efficiently from behind the arc in his career (41.9 percent). All the while Paul has scarcely missed a beat as a playmaker to dish 9.3 assists per game while using the lowest percentage of possessions he’s used since leaving the New Orleans Hornets.
Paul also spearheads a Rockets’ defense that ranks ahead of the Lakers, and will surely take joy in harassing Ball all over the court while staunch and rangy wing options like Trevor Ariza and P.J. Tucker take turns trying to bully Ingram.
The Lakers do catch a break as Clint Capella was ruled out due to a bruised heel. The Rockets nonetheless are likely to be a tough matchup for the young Lakers, especially without their veteran security blankets.
But if the youth movement can keep things close, it might force Walton to continue to find more burn for Hart and any other Lakers who succeed in the team’s smaller lineups moving forward.
Los Angeles Lakers (10-18) Vs. Houston Rockets (25-4):
5:00 P.M. PST, December 20, 2017
Toyota Center, Houston, Texas
TV: Spectrum Sportsnet
Radio: 710 AM (ESPN)/1330 KWKW (Spanish)
Projected Lakers Starting Lineup:
PG: Lonzo Ball
SG: Josh Hart
SF: Brandon Ingram
PF: Larry Nance Jr.
C: Andrew Bogut
Key Reserves: Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, Kyle Kuzma, Corey Brewer
Projected Warriors Starting Lineup:
PG: Chris Paul
SG: James Harden
SF: Trevor Ariza
PF: Ryan Anderson
Key Reserves: Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker, Luc Mbah a Moute, Tarik Black.