Game 1 Preview: Rockets at Lakers

Basketball is back.

Yes, you read that right. Say it out loud. It will make you feel better. If you've had a really cruddy summer and fall like me, you need this. Heck, if you're a basketball fan in general, you need this. And if you're a Rockets fan, you've been waiting for today for 536 days. That was the last time the Rockets played at (relatively) full strength.

You remember what happened on May 8, 2009, even if you can't remember the exact date. That was the date of Lakers-Rockets Game 3. Otherwise known as "The Last Time Yao Ming Played a Meaningful Game."

I know a lot of people were really excited about last season. There were some who thought we could be a playoff team. Of course, Dave was his typical upbeat self, saying:

I think you’re all a little nuts for expecting the Rockets to win more than 35 games without a real center…

There were so many questions. We were thinking about how a run-and-gun offense would work. Or even if it could. There was tons of commentary on how good Aaron Brooks really was. Or whether Luis Scola could be a 20-10 guy. Could Yao possibly come back late in the year? How would Tracy McGrady contribute to this team: through his play or his trade value? Could the Rockets trade T-Mac for a superstar and make the playoffs? Was Trevor Ariza the answer? Did he even know how to dribble? It still makes my head hurt.

Quick digression: my absolute favorite subplot of the 2009-2010 Rockets was the questioning of Jalen Rose's sanity. You may remember that ESPN picked the Rockets to finish out of the playoffs in the West, but Jalen Rose picked the Rockets to finish 14th, as well as behind the Memphis Grizzlies. As upset as all of us were, no one came close to Tom's indignation.

You heard it, folks.  The Grizzlies, who lack more chemistry than Michael Cera and any love interest that he has ever had, are going to win more games than the Rockets this year.  Surely Jalen wasn't alone on his prediction.

Actually, he was.  Not a single ESPN columnist, or sane sportswriter elsewhere, picked the Rockets to finish below the dreaded Grizzlies in 2010.  Brilliant call, Jalen.  Simply brilliant.

Incredibly, though, the Grizzlies were a great story last year, and finished 40-42, only two games behind the Rockets. Granted, it took a complete turnaround from Zach Randolph and the Allen Iverson trade to get the Grizz on track. And Michael Cera is still a huge tool.

I treated all of last season as a big preseason for this year. So, excuse me if I'm way more excited for the beginning of this NBA season than any other before. We may have a lockout next year, but from now until June, I know what I'll be doing when I'm not studying medicine.

There really aren't many questions this season. There are no questions as to the Rockets' ability to run and compete without Yao. In fact all of the questions this season involve, either directly or indirectly, the big fella. We've gone over those ad nauseum, so I'll only ask one: how much time will it take for Yao to resemble the Yao of old?

So of course we'd get the defending champions on opening night. The NBA couldn't have tossed us a softy to begin the year? Really? The champions on opening night, right after they're getting their rings. As soon as I saw that, I figured we probably had an overnight flight to SLC to take on the Jazz in their first game of the season for our next game. But surely the NBA wouldn't give us a back-to-back on the road to open the season? Of course they did. The NBA, where caring only happens when it's profitable.

Lastly before the jump and matchups, I want to give a shout-out to everyone involved in The Dream Shake getting to two years old, by which I mean our Daryl Morey wannabes and the D-League Select. And definitely all of you who come read the blog and my pregame stuff, specifically EAZY... and batman713, both of whom I met at the SBN Houston launch party. You guys are all awesome. But enough about me. What about them?

Update 7:30 CT: Kyle Lowry will not play tonight, according to his twitter account.

Just close your eyes and jump.

So I guess I should talk about the Lakers a little bit. They're still my pick to win the whole thing, despite what went down in South Beach this summer. I'm certainly not the biggest Kobe fan, but I do believe he is the best player in the world, and will be until Kevin Durant tells him to get lost. Until then, he's the best, and he'll get all the calls. So expect that. The Lakers got Steve Blake and Matt Barnes over the offseason, but lost Jordan Farmar and Adam Morrison (yeah, I said lost, not gained by subtraction).

Matchups:

PG: Aaron Brooks vs. Derek Fisher:

Fisher starts for the Lakers, but the team really has a three-headed monster at the point. Fisher plays a big chunk of the minutes, but Steve Blake will spell him for much of the game, and Shannon Brown can play the 1 when the Lakers like to go big.

I used to like Fisher. His heart and desire are among the top in the league, and I think we all felt sympathy when his daughter was diagnosed with cancer. 

But you don't get to deck Luis Scola and continue being in my good graces. As Christian Bale would say, we are done professionally. The worst part about the video is how pissed the Lakers fans are. I understand supporting your team, but when Trevor Ariza threw that punch against Toronto last year, I was the first to say he should get ejected. Granted, he couldn't hit the ocean in that game, but that's neither here nor there. When a player does something that blatant, fans need to stop being douches (tough for Lakers fans, I know) and accept the truth: it was a dirty play and Fisher got caught.

Moving on, I like Steve Blake. He looks like Drama from "Rob and Big" and has absolutely no physical tools to succeed in basketball. Yet, here he is, about to contribute solid minutes on a top-4 NBA team. He's a career 8/4 guy, but last year after being traded to the Clippers averaged 44% from three. With Kobe, Pau, and Bynum, he's going to be able to spread the floor and get a lot of open looks. 

Aaron Brooks is faster than everyone in the NBA outside of Derek Rose. This includes everyone on the Lakers, which in turn includes Fisher, Blake, and Brown.

Brooks has been known to humiliate this team with a passion (see: WCSF 2009). I except him to go into beast mode tonight and walk out with something like 25 points. If he can use his speed to draw defenders and pick up some assists, the Rockets will be in a good position to take the W.

Lowry is day-to-day with back spasms. If he can't go, I wonder if Adelman will throw Ish Smith to the wolves or let Courtney Lee handle the point with basic offensive sets. Either way, expect Brooks to play 40+ minutes if the Bulldog is chained.

Advantage: Rockets

SG: Kevin Martin vs. Kobe Bryant:

After playing in all 82 regular season games for the last two seasons, plus the Olympics in 2008, injuries caught up to Kobe last season. For five games. Stupid, lucky bastard. Actually, Kobe has always been in great shape and his preparation for every game is astounding. It's what makes him so good.

Kobe took a summer off to recuperate his knee and may not play tonight. I find it unlikely that he'll miss opening night where he can get his ring, so he gets the start here.

We're all very excited to see what Speed Racer (Don't worry Xiane-I will no longer be calling him "K-Mart") can do in a full season with the Rockets.

Here are quotes from recent pieces by Xiane and Tom, respectively. Links to the full pieces are here and here, again respectively. Both should be read, and keep on the lookout for the rest of Xiane's previews of each position. They've been great so far.

Martin is a capable scorer, either off shots, or effective drives to the basket that garner baskets, fouls or both.  His shot may look funky, but I've yet to see it blocked.  He hits FTs at a great rate (I'm picking the Rockets for between 1-3 in team FT accuracy this season).  His height is good, his speed is excellent, he's a smart player and will rarely take bad shots, or make bad decisions. 

I've said this before, I think, but I'll say it again: I can't think of a better situation for Martin to be in. He's surrounded with flexible talent, and now that he'll finally have a post presence (at least some of the time), he's going to thrive. The Rockets around Martin aren't the type of players who will take touches away from him. They're also quite capable of picking up the slack if he's having an off-night, though I don't think our worries about Martin will stem from the offensive end.

Suffice it to say, it looks like Martin will be entering his first full season in Houston with his best foot forward.

Those basically sum up the praise I would have for Martin. There's so much more I could say about him, but Xiane has beaten me to it, and I'm too lazy to write 2500 words on a guy not named Adam Morrison.

Still, unfortunately Kobe is Kobe. Obviously the Racer will not be guarding the Mamba much, but Kobe is still the better player, as there isn't a better SG in the league world.  However, if by some miracle Shannon Brown starts, this edge goes way over to Martin's side.

Advantage: Lakers

SF: Shane Battier vs. Ron Artest:

Ron has become kind of a celebrity since he won a championship. Thanking your psychiatrist on national television and showing up for Jimmy Kimmel Live with only your boxers on will do that.

The joke is on Lakers fans. Ron was showing up in just his boxers when he was a Rocket. So there. Wait, why am I proud of this? Moving on...

Shane will not be guarding Ron. I know ressaliance_00 and I agree that one of the best matchups in the NBA is Kobe vs. Shane. It's fun, especially when Shane makes Kobe eat the palm of his hand for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Ron, on the other hand, could guard either Shane or Kevin on defense. Normally I would expect him to stick with Martin, but with Phil Jackson (and Ron Artest, for that matter), I don't ever know what to think.

I'm calling this even, since both of these guys do similar things. Shane is better defensively 1-on-1, but Ron can create his own offense when the mood strikes. Barnes will also be called upon to guard our Speed Racer.

And has anyone else noticed more of an edge to Shane? He looks a little more aggressive out there. There's nothing substantial I can use in the way of proof. I just get the feeling that Shane has turned something on somewhere in him.

Advantage: Even

PF: Luis Scola vs. Lamar Odom:

I cannot tell you the number of times I've seen a player get into a contract year, play their tail off, get paid, then cruise until their next contract year. Erick Dampier immediately comes to mind. So when Our Friend from Argentina signed a 5-year, $47 million contract, you had every reason to believe that this year would be a down year for him statistically.

That is, unless you've ever watched him play basketball.

No one plays with as much emotion every night as Scola. It's unmatched. He could have banked his checks and taken the summer off to relax in some resort somewhere, but of course he didn't. Outside of Kevin Durant, I daresay he was the best player at the FIBA Worlds. He carried a Manu Ginobili-less Argentine team to the quarterfinals, including what Morey dubbed a "God Mode" game against Brazil. Do coasting players go 37-9 at a 70% clip? I expect another great season from Luis.

He'll be matched up with Lamar Odom, since Andrew Bynum will not play. The Lakers usually go with Odom at the 4 and start Pau at the 5 when Bynum sits, which is often.

I like Lamar Odom. He's inconsistent as can be, but when he shows up he is the X-factor the Lakers need to beat any team in the league. This is the first year where he won't be on my fantasy team, mainly because my friend convinced me that he's married to a whale.

Advantage: Rockets

C: Yao Ming vs. Pau Gasol:

It feels incredible to get to type the name "Yao Ming" as a starter. He's actually going to play! I haven't been this excited since the Power Rangers movie came out. I was young, okay?

I wrote this last year and it still applies, so I'll say it again:

Andrew Bynum is injured so Pau will start at center. Poor Lakers fans. It must be really rough to lose your center for part of the season. My heart goes out to them, especially because they're Lakers fans and therefore are entitled to whatever they want.

Pau is an incredible player and a gifted passer. I still think he should have been the Finals MVP last year. He absolutely dominated in game 7 and won them those rings they'll be getting tonight.

I came across this quote by Yao from two-and-a-half years ago. It really proves how badly he wants to play. If you listen to it and watch him (start around the 8-minute mark), it almost breaks your heart. Here's a guy who puts 100% into the game much like Scola, who couldn't go for his team.

"I felt so horrible walking in this building knowing I need to tell my teammates the situation," Yao said. "When coach tells everybody I am out for the season, everybody is like quiet. That kind of quietness makes me feel kind of scared. It was quiet like nobody was there and you just feel alone. But I trust my teammates will move forward. They played well the last month because everybody played well."

As depressing as that is, know that Yao has bounced back. He even called himself a second-round player yesterday. As soon as Yao starts making comments like this regularly, we know that he's mentally back. I disagree with Richard Justice on most matters, but there is one thing we both agree upon. Yao's interviews are great because he doesn't give a rat's tail about how the media portrays him anymore. All he wants to do is win.

As for the game, I really want to give the edge to the Rockets, but I don't think any of us know how Yao's going to play. Plus, Brad Miller will be in there quite a bit. Lakers get the edge because Pau is better than the average of Brad and Yao.

Advantage: Lakers

---

Bench:

Lakers: Brown, Sasha Vujacic, Blake, Barnes, Luke Walton, Theo Ratliff

Rockets: Kyle Lowry, Courtney Lee, Chase Buddinger, Chuck Hayes, Jordan Hill, Brad Miller-yes there are more people on the bench but I'm only going to write down guys who I think will be in the rotation.

Advantage: Rockets. I hope to be able to say that 81 more times this season.

Injuries:

Lakers: Bynum out, Walton questionable (hamstring), Ratliff questionable (knee), Odom probable (thumb)

Rockets: Lowry day-to-day (back spasms), Chuck Hayes probable (ankle), Yao definite (foot-duh). I expect the latter two to play. Lowry is a question mark.

Prediction: Go big or go home right? So, Rockets by 8.

Rockets vs Lakers coverage

Silver Screen and Roll

[Note by Xiane, 10/26/10 2:38 PM CDT ] I'm going to break into AK's excellent game preview to bring you more!  More!  This (from NBA Playbook) is the best explanation of the World Famous Triangle Offense you're going to likely find on the net.  

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