The Houston Rockets will host the Los Angeles Lakers Tuesday night in what will be the battle of two teams still struggling to find their identity.
Los Angeles defeated Houston at the Staples Center the first time around, but the Rockets will now look to even the score on their own turf.
James Harden and company are coming off a solid victory over the Utah Jazz and have won four of their last five games. Kobe Bryant and crew, however, are coming off an unacceptable loss at the hands of the Orlando Magic, and have now dropped three of their last five.
While no one expected much out of the Rockets this season, Harden's presence has changed things, which has left Houston searching for a defining victory that ultimately establishes some collective continuity, while providing immediate hope for the future.
By comparison, everything was expected out of the Lakers this season, and at 8-9, it's clear they have failed to deliver.
Will Los Angeles be able to get back on track against the Harden-led Rockets, or will Houston serve as a vessel that merely extends the Lakers' run of disappointment?
Time: Tuesday, December 4th, 8 p.m. ET
TV: NBA League Pass
Records: Houston Rockets (8-8) vs. Los Angeles Lakers (8-9)
Betting Line: TBD
Injuries (via CBSSports.com)
Lakers: Steve Blake (abdomen, out); Steve Nash (leg, out).
Key Storyline: Can the Lakers regain their footing?
Los Angeles has not been a dominant team this season by any means, yet we thought the days of playing sub .500 basketball were over.
Apparently not, however, as the loss to the Magic put the Lakers below .500 for the fourth time this season.
Nash's absence has been used as an excuse by many, but with the level of talent Los Angeles boasts even without him, it's clear the team's struggles extend well-beyond his shelving.
The Lakers are 6-5 since Mike D'Antoni took over and currently sit at third in the Pacific Division. A loss to the Rockets would put them at two games under .500 for the first time since early November while further bringing into question their ability to contend this season.
Though defeating Houston would only be a start, a victory would put the Lakers back at .500 and provide them with the kind of momentum they've seldom experienced all season.
Should Los Angeles fail to emerge victorious, however, expect the current negative narrative surrounding the Lakers to remain unwavering in the internal turmoil it promotes.
Key Matchup: James Harden, SG, Rockets vs. Kobe Bryant, SG, Lakers
Kobe got the best of Harden the first time around, but it's far from a given he does the same Tuesday night.
Harden is currently averaging 24.1 points, 5.4 assists and 4.1 rebounds per game. Though he continues to be an erratic source of efficiency for Houston, his penchant for dominating the scoreboard remains ever present.
The shooting guard dropped 20 points against the Lakers in the first contest, yet he was held to just 38.9 percent shooting from the field. He also coughed up the ball five times.
That said, Harden remains one of the most explosive scorers in the game, and is not someone Los Angeles can complacently defend or unsuccessfully combat if the team wishes to win the game.
This is why the Lakers have Kobe.
Bryant posted his 18th career triple-double against the Rockets earlier in the season, capitalizing off a lackluster perimeter defense. He'll look to pour it on early in this contest as well, likely carrying a chip on his shoulder from his squad's recent loss against Orlando.
However, Bryant has been held to less than 20 points in two of Los Angeles' last four contests, The Lakers won both games, but a less involved Kobe can never be considered a good thing.
That makes the Black Mamba's ability to stay involved and pile on the points crucial to a struggling Lakers team snagging a victory on the road.
Chandler Parsons, SF, Rockets
The Rockets are going to need Parsons to have a similar offensive outburst to the one he had previously against the Lakers.
Harden is going to be the main focal point of the Lakers' defense, which means Houston needs a second-in-command to step up and take some of the offensive burden off his shoulders.
Thus far, Parsons—not Jeremy Lin—has proved he can do just that, yet Los Angeles is no longer a stranger to his sharp-shooting ways.
If the Rockets are to win their fifth game in six tries, though, Parsons is going to have to find ways to score in volumes.
Otherwise, Houston will be subjected to a beat down similar to the one it suffered in Los Angeles less than a month ago.
Metta World Peace, SF, Lakers
Yes, World Peace needs to ensure he's hitting the wide open threes he'll get, but he also must help lock down the perimeter on defense.
Houston currently boasts two high octane scorers in Parsons and Harden, and the Lakers need a defensive force to successfully counteract their tendencies.
Bryant is an incredibly talented defender, but he'll need help manning a perpetual slasher like Harden. World Peace will be asked to provide such assistance while also attempting to contain Parsons, who dropped 24 points in these two teams' first meeting.
Los Angeles' ability to stile the prolific stat lines of Houston's top-two scorers will go a long way in determining the outcome in this game, rendering the defensive stylings of World Peace even more important than usual.
Omer Asik, C, Rockets
Asik struggled in Houston's first bout with Los Angeles.
The center dropped just eight points and grabbed nine rebounds, while also allowing Dwight Howard to traipse his way to a 28-point performance.
For the Rockets to have a legitimate chance at winning this game, Howard needs to be kept in check. His superior quickness and mobility makes him difficult to defend, but opposing teams have managed to take him out of the game before.
Los Angeles is going to look to exploit Asik early, so he must amp up his defensive intensity against Howard, ensuring that he doesn't disappear on the glass or offensive, either.
The Rockets need their oft-inconsistent, yet wildly intriguing center, to have a big game if they wish to emerge above .500 for the first time since early November.
Antawn Jamison, PF, Lakers
Jamison has come alive in coach D'Antoni's offense. Sort of.
The usually high scoring forward has struggled for much of the season, but he has posted 16 or more points in three of the last five games.
Houston lacks a proven presence off the bench who can score in as much excess as Jamison, essentially meaning that a big night from him provides the Lakers with a nearly insurmountable advantage over the Rockets.
Should Jamison disappear, though, like he did in a three-point outing against Indiana Pacers, Los Angeles' path to victory becomes much more difficult.
Like fall two games under .500 again difficult.
Prediction: Lakers 113, Rockets 106
Houston is not going to get blown out of the water this time around, but it won't walk away with a victory either.
Though the Lakers continue to struggle, they now have the sixth-most potent offense in the league, scoring at a rate of 100.7 points per game. As luck would have it, the Rockets allow 102.4 points per contest, the second-most total of any team in the league.
Los Angeles also dropped 119 points in the teams' first game, all but ensuring it will have no trouble putting points on the board in this one as well.
Which team will grind out a victory Tuesday night?
While Harden's presence dictates that the Rockets score plenty of points of their own, they're going up against a tougher defensive and rebounding opponent than they themselves are.
Limiting Parson's contribution is certainly a source of concern for the Lakers, yet outside of him and Harden, Houston lacks consistent offensive production, Lin and Asik included.
Pau Gasol's continued struggles within D'Antoni's system have the potential to prevent the Lakers from clinching a double-digit victory, but his shortcomings won't be enough to derail an extremely hungry Kobe.
No, all is not well in Hollywood at the moment, but an impressive road victory over the Rockets may be just what the Lakers need to officially rewrite what is becoming an increasingly disappointing season.
All stats in this article are accurate as of December 3rd, 2012.