Houston Rockets vs. Los Angeles Lakers game preview: The Battle for LA (kinda)

I'm looking forward to every rebound tonight. - Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE

The Rockets take on the Lakers in a game fraught with playoff implications. This game will determine whether the Rockets finish in sixth, seventh, or eighth in the Western Conference.

Houston Rockets Tickets

Before we get to the preview, since this is the last preview for the regular season it's my chance to thank everyone. I don't want to start being a Debbie Downer starting with each possible elimination game, so I'm using some of this space today to thank everyone at TDS involved in the previews. That includes Patrick, BD, and OJ ATM, who each wrote at least one preview when there were days I couldn't. I feel like I'm forgetting someone here (Xiane?), so I'll thank all the other writers in one fell swoop. But mostly I want to thank all the readers and everyone who commented. It's been one heck of a season and some of the discussions we had were fantastic. I'm looking forward to it continuing in the playoffs.

Now onto the preview.

Say it with me: This is a big game.

I'm assuming the Grizzlies will lay down against the Jazz, meaning that the Lakers will be playing for the playoff lives while the Rockets will be playing for seventh or sixth. There is desperation on both sides, but make no mistake: the Lakers want this more.

If they lose, that's it assuming the Jazz win. And even if the Jazz lose, then the Lakers can look at the game as their way to play into the seventh seed and avoid OKC. I don't think any of the Warriors, Rockets, or Lakers/Jazz will get out of the first round, but there's a difference between getting hammered by last year's Western Conference champs and maybe getting to win a game or two in the first round. The Lakers have taken flack all year for how poorly they've done despite the presence of four All-Stars/future Hall of Famers, and finishing seventh would give them a little more confidence and make this less of a disappointment.

For the Rockets, this is a chance to avoid some shame. You never want to back into the playoffs, and you definitely don't want to get OKC in the firs round. The Rockets are staring that right in the face. A week ago we were euphoric when the Rockets clinched and sixth place looked attainable. Who would have thought that one week later the prospect of being eighth was more likely than finishing sixth? Not me.

People compare this to the Texans losing 3 of 4 down the stretch and losing home court advantage. That's not really the same, though there are similarities. A better example is the Rockets in 2009, the last year they went to the playoffs. On the last day of the season, the Rockets needed to win to grab the 2 seed in the West. They lost, and teams 3-5 all won, dropping the Rockets to fifth. They eventually beat the Blazers in six games, but it set up a matchup with the Lakers in the second round.

I know everyone is going to watch this game closely. We've all seen the numbers by now showing that the Lakers are getting way more foul calls lately and the Jazz aren't getting much at all. If indeed there is a conspiracy, I expect the Lakers to get plenty of phantom calls, even without Kobe Bryant who can get foul calls for breathing on him. I've grown a little tired of conspiracy because there's nothing I can do about it. I wish I could impersonate Stern, call Joey Crawford and say, "The Eagle won't land tonight." But I can't because I can't sound like a pompous asshole.

As it is, we'll know pretty quickly if the fix is in.

I think this game can be a great one to watch if it isn't interrupted too often. These are two good teams that are fighting for something. Lots of emotion going down at Staples tonight.

One more thing: if you had asked me before the season that on the last day of the season the Rockets would be able to lose to keep the Jazz out of the playoffs, I'd have laughed my ass off and said, "I hope Royce White goes the full 48!" Now that we're here, I'm not so sure anymore. I want us to win, and no matter whether the Jazz or Lakers miss the playoffs I'll be happy. But I want to win this game too.

Tip-off at 9:30pm CST on ESPN. SUCK IT COMCAST!

PG: Jeremy Lin vs. Steve Blake

Don't laugh, but Steve Blake carried the Lakers for parts of the first half against the Spurs on Sunday. He finished with 23 points on 8-16 shooting and grabbed five boards.

With no Steve Nash or Kobe tonight, the Rockets have to dominate the backcourt battle. That starts with Lin, who has to dictate the tempo and drive at Blake all night. The Lakers had little depth before the injuries, and now it's a bare bones situation. The backup point guard for the Lakers is Darius Morris, who I like but isn't there yet.

Advantage: Houston

SG: James Harden vs. Jodie Meeks

When these teams last met, Howard and Pau were injured. That meant Nash and Kobe had to carry the Lakers. For the first half, they did. However, once Harden and Lin got going the game turned on its headd and the Rockets ran away with it.

Tonight is the opposite, with no guard stars but both bigs there. Harden has to get out and run and try to get some easy baskets on the fast break.

If this game is close late, and I assume it will be, then Harden can't look to draw fouls because he's not going to get them. Not in this game, with so much at stake for the league and the Lakers.

Advantage: Houston

SF: Chandler Parsons vs. Ron Artest

In case you're new to the show here, we call him Ron Artest, or Ron-Ron, or Crazy Pills.

Tru Warier is also acceptable, but stupid.

It seems like ages ago since Ron Artest was in Houston, but the last time the Rockets made the playoffs Artest was the Rockets' best player not named Yao Ming.

Artest also has a habit of playing very well against the Rockets, and Parsons will have to keep him in check tonight.

Advantage: Houston

PF: Greg Smith vs. Pau Gasol

This isn't much a matchup at all. Gasol is the best passing big man in the game, and the Lakers have run that high-low elblow-block thing with Gasol and Howard to perfection. When Gasol catches the ball at the top of the key, he is able to survey the court and do all kinds of damage with his shot or his vision.

Greg Smith is in one of those interesting situations. This moment is bigger than him. While Gasol is big enough for this game, Smith hasn't proven that he is. Usually this goes one of two ways: either Smith fades into nothing and doesn't contribute at all, or he comes through in a big way and slams on three Lakers.

Pau could have a triple double tonight. Don't be surprised. He got one against the Warriors and now has even more responsibility with Kobe injured.

Advantage: Los Angeles

C: Omer Asik vs. Dwight Howard

No one has more at stake tonight than Dwight Howard. He's the embattled superstar that asked for this. People forget that even if Howard didn't have a great year, which he still did, the Lakers wouldn't have gotten anything from Andrew Bynum either since he was injured all year.

Howard will have a double-double tonight. You can't stop that. But what you can do is box out and make him work for his hook shots and post-ups. Asik will do that, and those battles down low will be legendary.

Assuming the refs don't call Asik for ticky-tack fouls early and often. Remember, I said we would know if the fix is in for this game pretty early. We'll know Stern made a call if Asik gets called for BS fouls early. The Rockets have no depth behind Asik that can really stick with Howard other than maybe Smith. So Asik going out will cause a cascade effect that it usually does. However, the Lakers are a team like the Grizzlies that are perfectly placed with two great bigs to take advantage of the lack of depth the Rockets have at center.

Advantage: Los Angeles

Bench:

The Lakers will play Darius Morris, Antawn Jamison, and Earl Clark. Chris Duhon got some spot minutes last game. I really like Earl Clark and think he can do damage. If Jamison feels like playing he's trouble too.

The Rockets have Patrick Beverley, Carlos Delfino, Terrence Jones, and Francisco Garcia. Donatas Motiejunas might get some minutes if McHale wants to spread the court but I think he'll stick to the 9-man rotation.

Advantage: Even

Prediction: Lakers ride emotions to 110-98 win.

For a Lakers perspective, check out Silver Screen and Roll. And please be nice if you go over there. I know lots of Lakers fans are Kobe fans, but I know a few LA fans who really love their team and are good people. Let's not dishonor ourselves over there.

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