The Los Angeles Lakers don’t have to win, and in the weird way the NBA works they’ll be heading into the final game of the season, hosting the Houston Rockets, knowing what they need to get in order to make the NBA playoffs.
The Utah Jazz play the earlier game against the Memphis Grizzlies, and if they lose, the Lakers can afford to lose as well. Maybe they’ll want to give it a go and finish 7th in the West, but it doesn’t really matter if they play the Thunder or the Spurs. After such a turbulent season and being with one foot in the grave (which means no postseason), just making the playoffs is some sort of achievement to build on for next season.
Yes, Kobe Bryant isn’t going to play. This means Dwight Howard is once again the focus of this offense, and the kind of basketball the Lakers will be playing will be a lot more similar to what he’s gotten used to during his Orlando days. Him in the middle, Pau Gasol budging in sometimes while trying to make the most of being the best passer on the team, while the rest line up across the arc, waiting for the open shot and the pass.
Howard finished with 26 points, 17 rebounds and 3 blocks against the San Antonio Spurs in a must win game for both teams, the Spurs gave up on early on. The key for the Lakers isn’t just Howard feeling comfortable offensively, but him not being drawn out to the very dangerous three point shooting threats the Rockets have, making 10.6 three point shots per game, succeeding in 36.8% of their attempts, with five different players who make over 37% of their shots beyond the arc.
Guys stepping up in the short, short roster of theirs, virtually not playing more than 8 guys as Steve Blake and Jodie Meeks get extended minutes will determine if the Lakers are able to keep up with the Rockets who will try and make this a track meet through James Harden pushing inside and early, helping the Rockets win their last two games, although both of them were in Houston.
The Rockets are not in the best of form recently, having some trouble with the combination of Jeremy Lin and James Harden. To be more accurate, the ball handling issue which is tilting towards Harden, the better scorer obviously, but not necessarily the better choice for point guard.
Predictions – The key for the Lakers will be containing Harden early on. You can’t keep him off the free throw line completely or shut him down, especially not with the weak defensive players the Lakers have on the court, but taking away his step towards the paint early does a great deal. The Rockets are the better team, with the even deeper bench. If Harden doesn’t force the game and allows Lin to contribute as a point guard, the Lakers won’t be able to keep up with a faster, younger team.