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Preview: Rockets at Lakers

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

LOS ANGELES - Setting the scene for Houston’s matchup with the Los Angeles Lakers:

The Basics:

Houston Rockets (51-25) at Los Angeles Lakers (25-52)

Point Differential:

Los Angeles: -6.5 (NBA rank: 27th)

Houston: +4.7 (NBA rank: 6th)

Offensive Rating (points per 100 possessions):

Los Angeles: 101.7 (21st)

Houston: 108.3 (5th)

Defensive Rating (points allowed per 100 possessions):

Los Angeles: 107.8 (28th)

Houston: 102.6 (11th)

Pace (number of possessions per 48 minutes):

Los Angeles: 100.87 (2nd)

Houston: 98.56 (5th)

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):

Los Angeles: 50.4% (T-12th)

Houston: 53.1% (3rd)

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

Los Angeles: 15.1 (T-12th)

Houston: 16.5 (T-29th)

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

Los Angeles: 45.7% (30th); offensive rebound rate: 20.5% (30th); defensive rebound rate: 70.9% (30th)

Houston: 52.0% (3rd); offensive rebound rate: 27.5% (T-6th); defensive rebound rate: 73.8% (T-20th)

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

Los Angeles: .264 (22nd)

Houston: .389 (1st)

Nine days. After six months, 76 games and too many roller coaster rides to count, that’s all the remains of the Rockets’ regular season. The playoffs are almost here. Hallelujah.

There is still a bit of business to which the team must attend before they cross that bridge, however. The Rockets’ stated preseason goal of snagging home-court advantage for the first round of the playoffs is right there for the taking. Houston’s magic number for clinching that prized possession now stands at just three – any combination of Rockets wins and Portland defeats that equals that figure will produce the desired result. And with a jam-packed playing schedule this week, Houston will have no shortage of opportunities to take care of business as quickly as possible.

The Rockets’ last push in their pursuit of that bid begins tonight in Los Angeles, as Houston kicks off a four-games-in-five-nights stretch with a showdown against the Lakers. In case you hadn’t heard – and goodness knows the national media never pays enough attention to the daily drama in La-La land – it hasn’t been the best of seasons for the lesser-known and lower profile inhabitants of Staples Center. Yes, Houston has had its own trials and tribulations as a result of the injury bug, but it’s been nothing like the plague of ailments that has fallen upon the Lakers this year. Kobe, Kaman and Gasol – they’re all out.  So, too, are Xavier Henry and Kent Bazemore. Steve Nash and Jordan Farmar are questionable, and Nick Young says he intends to play despite dealing with a sore knee.

What ought to be Houston’s prevailing thought after sorting through that laundry list of rotten injury luck: Take what you came here for and then get the heck out of dodge – and far, far away from that malevolent juju – as quickly as possible. Come to think of it, that simply must be the Rockets’ mindset anyway. With the dreaded Denver back-to-back looming tomorrow night, Houston’s players can ill afford to mess around and find themselves locked in a nail biting battle to the bitter end this evening. That doesn’t mean take shortcuts; rather it implies that a focused effort from the outset figures to go a long way toward helping Houston achieve both its short term and big picture goals of dispatching the Lakers while making sure the club escapes with more than enough energy left in the tank to get on with the business of procuring the best position possible come playoff time.

Know Thy Enemy

- There’s no sugarcoating the Lakers’ defense right now. Only the Jazz and Bucks have been worse on that end of the floor this season and the stark reality is that no statistical measure exists than paints any sort of silver lining for LA in that regard.

After adjusting for pace, the Lakers are dead last in second chance points allowed per game, bottom-2 in fast break and paint points conceded, and bottom-3 in points allowed off turnovers per contest. No team allows more shots per game from the restricted area than does Los Angeles and opponents are hitting 63 percent of those attempts – a mark that places the Lakers in the league’s bottom-5 in that category as well.

The moral of this story: LA’s defense is not very good. Then again, that’s not exactly a newsflash given the fact that the Lakers have allowed opponents to rack up at least 120 points on them on 10 different occasions since the All-Star break.

- Not at all helping matters in that regard is the fact that Los Angeles also owns the rather ignominious hat trick of sporting the worst mark in all three major rebounding categories. Whether one peruses overall rebound percentage or filters through offensive and defensive rebound rates separately, the Lakers will be found at the very bottom of each list.

Moral of the story No. 2: It’s tough to stop the opposition from scoring without the assistance of rim protection or rebounding.

- After preaching the high-minded merits of those hoops life lessons, it should be noted that the one attribute that gives the Lakers a puncher’s chance these days is their ability to connect from long range. LA sits fourth in the NBA in 3-point percentage, having knocked down 38 percent of its attempts from downtown this season. And it’s no coincidence that the Lakers are shooting better than 44 percent from 3 this season in games they’ve won while connecting at a rate of less than 35 percent in their losses.

Synergy places Jodie Meeks, Nick Young, Ryan Kelly and Kendall Marshall in the top 25 percentile of the league in terms of their proficiency at spot-up shooting, and the Lakers are fifth overall in the league in that category. It’s worth noting that while Los Angeles has lost its last two games against the Rockets by a combined 40 points, LA has knocked down 43 percent of its triples against Houston this season.

In the spotlight

Let’s not make this complicated. When a scuffling D meets up with a scorching scorer that’s typically a ready-made recipe for offensive pyrotechnics and there’s little reason to believe that formula will fall flat tonight when hometown kid James Harden renews acquaintances with the Lakers. The Artesia High School product has laid waste to LA’s defense this season, as Harden has averaged 34 points, 6.7 assists, 6.3 rebounds and 4.3 steals (!!!) per game in their three previous meetings. His shooting numbers are equally robust as he’s knocked down better than 50 percent of his shots from the field and more than 43 percent of his 3s while going to the line 11 times per contest. Simply put: if Harden puts in a full night’s work, the points are likely to pile up in a hurry.

Injury Update

Pat Beverley (right knee sprain) and Greg Smith (arthroscopic right knee procedure) are out. Dwight Howard (left ankle strain) is day-to-day.

All stats courtesy of NBA.com except where otherwise noted.