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Houston Rockets vs. Los Angeles Lakers game preview

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Houston Rockets begin their stretch run tonight with 25 games remaining.

A quick reset: Houston sits at 33-24, alone in fifth place in the Western Conference. They sit one game back of the Portland Trail Blazers for fourth (though the Blazers hold the tiebreaker), but only three games ahead of the Sacramento Kings, who are sitting in ninth place.

The Rockets will be whole (well, technically not since Iman Shumpert is out for two games) for the first time since December 20, when they lost Chris Paul to yet another hamstring injury. Heading into the Heat game that night, the Rockets were on a 5-game winning streak and starting to look like the team from last season. Houston kept playing well through CP3’s absence, with James Harden taking his game to a level not seen since Wilt Chamberlain.

A little over a week later, the Rockets lost Eric Gordon for two weeks, and right before Gordon was set to return, Clint Capela injured his thumb and has been out for almost six weeks after getting surgery.

Houston’s defense has struggled, but it wasn’t playing well with Capela either. Houston has missed Capela’s rebounding, sure, but it’s his act as a deterrent when opponents get into the lane that Houston will welcome back with open arms. Kenneth Faried has filled in admirably on offense with hustle and as an outlet on Harden forays to the rim, but Capela and Harden have a connection on a different level.

While Rockets fans are probably imagining a scenario where Capela fixes all of Houston’s problems and believe Houston could close on a 20-5 kick, the likely outcome is a rusty Capela for a while and MDA working out rotations now that the Rockets are finally healthy.

The Los Angeles Lakers are sitting in the tenth position in the West and need to turn their season around in a hurry. Their defense has been as porous as Houston’s even with LeBron James’s return from injury.

With the game at Staples Center, you can be sure that the Lakers crowd will be fired up to see the rematch of the second game of the season, when Houston picked up their first win as Harden went clutch mode in the fourth quarter to put away LA. Of course, that game is far better remembered for Spitgate, which led to ejections and suspensions for Paul, Rajon Rondo, and Brandon Ingram.

Rondo missed the two meetings between these teams in Houston, so tonight is the first matchup between Paul and Rondo since the incident. More important to both teams (and players) is the outcome of the game, which both squads need in order to advance their goals. Everyone wants to come out strong after the All-Star break, and the guess here is that the crowd intensity and memory of Spitgate will fuel the Lakers to a win tonight.

Tip-off is at 9:30pm CT on TNT