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Preview: Rockets at Lakers

Setting the scene for Houston's matchup with the Los Angeles Lakers

LOS ANGELES - Analysis and observations from before, during and after Houston’s matchup with the Los Angeles Lakers:

PREVIEW

The Basics:

Houston Rockets (36-17) at Los Angeles Lakers (18-35)

Point Differential:

LA Lakers: -5.2 (NBA rank: 26th)

Houston: +4.1 (NBA rank: 8th)

Offensive Rating (points per 100 possessions):

LA Lakers: 100.8 (22nd)

Houston: 107.7 (5th)

Defensive Rating (points allowed per 100 possessions):

LA Lakers: 105.7 (T-23rd)

Houston: 102.1 (T-8th)

Pace (number of possessions per 48 minutes):

LA Lakers: 99.6 (4th)

Houston: 98.03 (7th)

Four Factors:

Shooting – Effective field goal percentage (eFG% is a field goal percentage that’s adjusted for made 3-pointers being 1.5 times more valuable than a 2-point shot):

LA Lakers: 49.7% (T-12th)

Houston: 53.2% (3rd)

Turnovers – Turnover ratio (the number of turnovers a team averages per 100 possessions):

LA Lakers: 15.3 (T-13th)

Houston: 16.6 (T-28th)

Rebounding – Rebound percentage (the percentage of total rebounds obtained)

LA Lakers: 46.3% (30th); offensive rebound rate: 21.0% (28th); defensive rebound rate: 71.4% (29th)

Houston: 51.7% (T-5th); offensive rebound rate: 27.0% (12th); defensive rebound rate: 73.1% (24th)

Free Throws – Free throw rate (the rate at which a team goes to the line relative to the number of field goals it attempts):

LA Lakers: .268 (T-16th)

Houston: .397 (1st)

The toughest part about writing previews over the course of the NBA’s marathon regular season: uncovering distinct storylines for each and every game. Take tonight’s contest for instance. The Rockets are rolling and the Lakers have been decimated by injuries. Outside of those two talking points, what’s left to discuss?

Oh, that.

Whatever. Some people will boo, a flurry of tweets will be sent and then we’ll all move on with our lives.  It’s the circle of life in today’s NBA, just as Mufasa explained to young Simba right before extolling the virtues of Rockets fandom and the importance of beating LA (sadly, the latter part got left on the cutting room floor. Stupid Hollywood – always so afraid of taking risks and alienating certain segments of the audience).

Yes, Dwight Howard will be facing the Lakers in Los Angeles for the first time since leaving the Lakers this summer. Yes, the reception figures to be a bit frosty. But at the end of the day, the only thing that truly matters is that tonight’s contest represents a golden opportunity for Houston to win eight in a row for the first time since it put together a rather memorable streak in 2008. Do that, and the Rockets will likely be singing ‘Hakuna Matata’ all the way to the Bay.

Know Thy Enemy

- There’s not much mystery involved in figuring out the key to slowing the Lakers’ offensive attack these days. Thanks to its injury-riddled roster, LA has been forced to heavily rely on its 3-point shooting in order to put points on the board. If the Lakers get hot from beyond the arc – as they did while hitting 16 3s en route to recording a 99-98 win over Houston on November 7 – they’re capable of increasing the variance just enough to tilt the odds in their favor.

But when those shots aren’t falling, the picture tends to get awfully bleak in La-La land. Los Angeles isn’t much of a threat near the rim (the Lakers reside in the bottom-five in shots per game from the restricted area and pace-adjusted points in the paint), its woeful rebounding results in a dearth of second chance scoring opportunities, and though LA plays at a breakneck pace, the Lakers own the 25th-ranked transition offense in the NBA, according to Synergy Sports.

- For the most part, Los Angeles’ primary 3-point threats are well known to NBA fans. Steve Nash, of course, is one of the greatest shooters the game has ever seen, while Steve Blake and Jodie Meeks aren’t too shabby from long range, either.

But Kendall Marshall?!? What on earth? The second-year player from the University of North Carolina came into the league with a reputation as a gifted passer who wasn’t much of a shooter. True to form, he hit just a shade better than 31 percent of his 3s during his rookie season with the Suns. Before the 2013-14 campaign began, Phoenix sent him to Washington as part of the Marcin Gortat deal. Three days later he was waived.

After a stint in the D-League, Marshall was picked up by the Lakers after the injury bug took a massive bite out of their point guard ranks. They literally had no choice but to play him. Predictably, he’s been a hit as a playmaker, dishing out more than nine assists per game. It’s his shooting, however, that's been nothing short of stunning.

Heading into today’s contest, Marshall ranks fourth in the NBA in 3-point shooting, having hit 46.5 percent of shots from beyond the arc. All but three of his 99 3-point makes have come from above-the-break. The key to making him miss: force him to put the ball on the floor. According to Synergy Sports, Marshall ranks in the league’s 98th percentile in terms of catch-and-shoot scoring opportunities, in which he shoots the ball at a nearly 47 percent clip. When he’s made to take a jumper off the dribble, however, his hit rate dips all the way to 34 percent.

- On the defensive end of the floor, it’s awfully hard to find reason to believe the Lakers have the personnel necessary to slow the Rockets’ high-powered attack. Los Angeles gives up more shots per game from the restricted area than does any other team in the league, and they reside in the NBA’s bottom-five in terms of pace-adjusted paint points, second chance points, fast break points and points off turnovers conceded per contest. If the Rockets properly execute, the points will come. Period.

In the spotlight

Sure, all eyes will be on Dwight Howard tonight. And given his February numbers (nearly 26 points and 13 boards per game) and the Lakers’ interior vulnerabilities, there’s an excellent chance his on-court production will demand that the spotlight stay on him for the duration of the contest.

But don’t be surprised if a hometown kid lays claim to a starring role and a spot on the marquee as well. James Harden was born and raised in the LA area and he has absolutely ripped the Lakers to shreds this season, averaging 36.5 points, 6.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists per contest.

Injury Update

Ronnie Brewer (ankle) will be a game-time decision.

For the Lakers, Pau Gasol (groin) is questionable, Jordan Farmar (hamstring) is doubtful, and Kobe Bryant (knee), Xavier Henry (knee) and Nick Young (knee) are out.

All stats courtesy NBA.com except where otherwise noted.