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Los Angeles Lakers vs. Houston Rockets: Preview, Analysis and Predictions

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Los Angeles Lakers vs. Houston Rockets: Preview, Analysis and Predictions
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It's still early January. There's still plenty of time to turn things around.

But the Los Angeles Lakers are running out of time to do just that.

Following Sunday's 112-105 defeat at the hands of the Denver Nuggets, the Lakers have lost three straight. It's already their third losing streak of at least three games in their first 33 games of the 2012-13 season.

The Lakers have struggled mightily on the defensive end, allowing the fifth-most points in the NBA (100.8 points per game). With their starting backcourt a combined 72 years old and an offensive-minded coach (Mike D'Antoni) at the helm, their struggles to find stops are anything but surprising.

Their defensive issues may only be compounded with Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol and Jordan Hill all sidelined with injuries suffered during Sunday's loss.

And those defensive struggles are hardly what the team needs in Tuesday night's matchup with the Houston Rockets.

The Rockets are pacing the NBA with a blistering 106.2 points per game. Houston has topped the century mark in 12 of their past 16 games, scoring at least 120 points in five of those games.

Houston also enters the contest as one of the hottest teams in the league. They have won four consecutive games and 11 of their past 14.

The Lakers have a decisive advantage in terms of proven talent. But the Rockets have all of the ingredients to make L.A. look old and slow.

 

Time: Tuesday, January 8, 8 p.m. ET

TV: NBATV

Records: Los Angeles Lakers (15-18), Houston Rockets (20-14)

Betting Line: N/A

 

Injuries (via CBSSports.com)

Lakers

Steve Blake (abdomen), out

Pau Gasol (concussion), out

Jordan Hill (hip), out

Dwight Howard (shoulder), out

Rockets

None reported

 

Key Matchup

Kobe Bryant, SG, Lakers vs. James Harden, SG, Rockets

Bryant couldn't be doing anything more for this Lakers team.

At 34 years old, he's leading the NBA in scoring at 30.5 points per game. It's the third-highest average of his 16-plus-year career, all while shooting a career-best 48.1 percent from the field.

And he's not just impressing with his point production. While the Lakers trotted out injury replacements as their starting point guards (Darius Morris and Chris Duhon), Bryant emerged as their most reliable distributor with 4.8 assists per game.

His dedication to chasing the glass (5.2 rebounds per game) has helped the Lakers corral the fourth-most rebounds per game in the NBA (45.9).

If it's possible though, D'Antoni will need more out of his MVP candidate. With Howard and Gasol sidelined, the Lakers' typical advantage has been literally taken down to size. According to Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times, D'Antoni may even trot out small forward by trade Metta World Peace as the team's center.

Bryant's propensity to play one end of the floor could prove costly to a team missing their top three shot-blockers, particularly with Bryant's looming matchup with the dynamic Harden.

Harden has burst on the scene during his first tenure with Houston, even more impressive considering the resume he compiled during three productive, successful seasons with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The fourth-year guard isn't quite challenging for Bryant's scoring title, but he isn't too far off the pace (26.4 points per game).

Despite attempting more than seven field goals per game in 2012-13 than he had in any previous season, he's connecting on the second-best field-goal percentage of his career (44.9).

Backcourt mate Jeremy Lin has lessened the importance of Harden's playmaking skills to a degree, but the former Arizona State standout has still impacted the game with his passing and court vision (5.3 assists per game).

He has the most room for growth on the defensive end, and that will be exploited by the prolific Bryant.

But given the Lakers' ravaged rotation, Houston won't need Harden to outscore Bryant.

 

X-Factors

Steve Nash, PG, Lakers

He's still learning how to play alongside his teammates, considering he's appeared in just nine of the Lakers' first 33 games.

Even with the small sample size, though, Nash has displayed the controlled, tactical offensive approach that has defined his 16-plus-year career.

His 8.8 assists per game is by far the best average on the Lakers. In fact, it represents the fifth-best total in the entire league.

Without Howard and Gasol, though, the Lakers will need Nash to rediscover the scoring punch that's been notably absent through the year's early goings. He's never been a big-time scorer by any stretch, but L.A. needs Nash to boost his 10.2 points per game (his lowest scoring average since 1999-2000) closer to his career average of 14.4.

They'll also need an uncharacteristic defensive performance out of Nash given Lin's ability to create plays off the dribble. Nash won't have the typical rim-protectors behind him, so he'll have to do what he can to keep Lin away from the basket.

Omer Asik, C, Rockets

The Rockets took a heavy gamble with the three-year, $25.1 million contract they gave the seldom-used Asik over the offseason.

If the early returns are any indication, it was a risk worth taking.

The former Chicago Bulls reserve has thrived in his first season as a full-time starter. With 11.4 rebounds and 10.6 points per game, he's one of just 12 players in the league to average a double-double.

He's not as high on the offensive pecking order as most of his double-double peers (his 10.6 points ranks fifth on the Rockets), but he has made the most of his offensive chances (52.5 field-goal percentage).

And his role could be growing against an undermanned, undersized frontcourt. Recent D-League call-up Robert Sacre will reportedly get the start opposite Asik, according to Lakers.com's Mike Trudell.

 

Depth Charts

Los Angeles Lakers

Courtesy of ESPN.com.

Houston Rockets

Courtesy of ESPN.com.

 

Prediction

Houston Rockets 118, Los Angeles Lakers 103

Let's just say this: I'm predicting a 15-point win and even that may be generous...for the Lakers.

Houston split their first two games with L.A. this season (with each club stealing a win on the road), but the Rockets scored 215 points in those two games. And those 215 points came against a Lakers frontline anchored by Howard.

Maybe this is the kind of adversity the Lakers needed. Maybe this is the type of overwhelming circumstance that will spur on an unbelievable performance that only Bryant can produce.

Then again, maybe this is the type of game that could continue a disastrous season for the Lakers.

For a team that already struggles on defense and is now missing its top defender, the potent Rockets will have too much offense for the aging Lakers to keep up.

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