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Rockets ready for rowdy reception Wednesday versus Lakers

LOS ANGELES - With good vibes aplenty and a mutual mindset geared toward keeping them coming, the Houston Rockets returned to work this week in Los Angeles. The players have been in high spirits since touching down in SoCal; the scene on team busses to and from practice in recent days has been akin to that of brothers being reunited after having spent time apart. The friendly, playful trash talk has been at an all-time high; the collective mood: downright rambunctious.

The high energy levels have translated to spirited on-court workouts as well, as the club practiced on the USC campus Monday evening before venturing out to UCLA for an afternoon session the next day. With the All-Star break over, the Rockets are eager to build upon their seven-game winning streak – a task that begins Wednesday night when their five-game west coast road swing takes them to Staples Center for a visit with the Lakers. 

Of course, this being the Rockets’ first road affair of the season with the Lakers, the team is bracing for what promises to be a rowdy reception for Dwight Howard’s return to his old stomping grounds. Houston head coach Kevin McHale is certainly no stranger to LA’s unique brand of venom and vitriol, having experienced plenty of it during his playing days with the Boston Celtics. His advice to Howard: Stay focused on the only thing that matters – making winning basketball plays.

“It’s one of those things where I’m sure he won’t get the best reception in the world but I haven’t seen the fans score a point yet,” McHale said after Tuesday’s practice. “In the famous words of Bill Walton, if they’re cheering you in the opposition’s arena then you’re doing something wrong. Bill thought that Danny Ainge was the best player in the NBA because he got booed everywhere. They’re going to boo you, you just have to go play.

“He’s been playing really well for us and he’s been on a nice roll so we’ve just got to continue with that.”

Indeed, Howard has been playing his best basketball of the season this month, averaging nearly 26 points and 13 rebounds per game so far in February, all while shooting better than 65 percent from the field and 68 percent from the free throw line. McHale attributes his All-Star center’s increased production to improved on-court chemistry and familiarity between Howard and his new teammates.

“We’re getting better playing with him," he said. "A lot of these guys had never played with a really good post-up guy; our post feeding was poor and (now) we’re hitting him better. We’re just getting more of a rhythm. Dwight’s getting the ball in his spot in the flow of our offense … Every month he’s been getting better.”

That upward trend has held true during Houston’s two games against the Lakers this season as well. Howard totaled 15 points and 14 boards during the Rockets’ 99-98 loss to LA November 7, then tallied 20 points, 13 boards and four steals as Houston trounced the Lakers 113-99 last month. Of course, both of those games took place within the friendly confines of Toyota Center. The atmosphere Wednesday night promises to be a different kind of animal altogether. Howard says he’s ready.

“Thank God this year I’ve been through it a lot in every city, since there are Laker fans everywhere,” he said with a smile. “I think I’m a little bit prepared for what’s going to happen.

“I can’t really focus too much on that. I know I’m going to hear it the whole game. There’s not anything I can do about it but go out there and play.

“I’m in a better place. I love my teammates. We have a great chemistry, just being around each other, talking all the time, hanging out. We built something special so far here in Houston.”


Regardless of what transpires during Wednesday’s contest, McHale has made no secret of his points of emphasis for the rest of the season: defensive rebounding and turnovers. Houston has been a bottom-10 team in both areas for much of the 2013-14 campaign, so shoring up those areas of weakness would help the club go a long way in solidifying its credentials as a true title contender.

Regarding the turnover issue, it’s worth pointing out that a high volume of turnovers alone is not the end of the world. Obviously ball security is important, but when one sees that the NBA’s three best teams – Oklahoma City, Miami and Indiana – all reside in the bottom-10 in turnover ratio as well, it becomes rather clear that turnovers alone are not a fatal flaw. To that end, the Rockets’ primary concern going forward is eliminating the live-ball miscues that so frequently lead to layups and dunks at the other end.

The club’s defensive rebounding, then, is probably the more pressing issue, especially when Howard is on the bench getting a breather. With their eight-time All-Star on the floor, Houston has secured the defensive glass near a league average rate. When he sits, however, the Rockets’ defensive rebounding percentage plummets to a mark that would rank dead last in the league. Having a healthy Omer Asik should go a long way toward addressing that problem, but so too would a little more help from the team’s perimeter players.

“Dwight and Omer are very good rebounders,” said McHale. “Then (Terrence Jones) and (Donatas Motiejunas), they rebound about average for their positions in the league. Everyone else needs to come in there and pick them up. I was telling our guys: based on just raw percentages on (opponents’) first shot, there’s only a (few) teams in our league that do better at stopping people – we just give up too many second shots.”

Chandler Parsons concurs, saying he and the rest of the Rockets’ wing players need to start making more of a consistent impact on the defensive glass.

“As wings, we can’t leak out; we’ve got to stay in the play … we’ve got to get in there and get our nose in and help our (big) guys. They’re holding it down for us, and (defensive rebounding) is the only thing stopping our defense from being elite.

“You just have to have an understanding of time and place. You’ve got to know when to go and when not to go. A lot of times I see Dwight getting the rebound so I take off. It’s just got to be reads and things that you see out there.”

Do that, and there's an excellent chance that the Rockets will continue to roll and the good vibes will be here to stay.