The Los Angeles Lakers were off to a 20-14 start before losing LeBron James to a groin injury. Having gone 5-7 in his absence, the Lakers have fallen to eighth in the Western Conference. They are 10-12 on the road and take on the fifth seeded Houston Rockets, who are 16-7 at home and 25-19 overall.
Houston has taken both meetings between the teams this season as favorites and are a 7-point favorite in this one. Examining the teams more closely, the teams are nearly identical in both scoring and points allowed. There is a big difference off the boards, with the Lakers ranked fifth and the Rockets ranked 26th. On the flip side, the Rockets take care of the ball much better, near the top ten in fewest turnovers, while the Lakers are near the bottom, at 27th in the league.
Looking for ways to replace James and his 27 points, eight rebounds, seven assists and court leadership has proven difficult. Kyle Kuzman (19 points, six rebounds) and Brandon Ingram 14.8 points, 6.7 rebounds) are capable of picking up some of the slack, but Los Angeles has to be much more precise and sound defensively to win. JaValle McGee (14.8 points and 6.7 rebounds) and Kantavious Caldwell-Pope (10.2 points) have played better, while Lonzo Ball continues to struggle with his shot, hitting just 40 percent from the floor and a woeful 42 percent from the free throw line.
Clearly, the Lakers will have to contain James Harden to have a chance at the upset. That's been easier said than done, however. The MVP candidate is leading the league in scoring at 35.4 points per game and is hitting 38 percent on 13 three-point attempts per game. In additions, he is averaging 8.3 and seven assists. Veteran Chris Paul is his back court mate and has found the open man regularly, averaging eight assists while dropping 15.6 per game.
Houston has other complimentary players that could cause trouble for Los Angeles. Clint Capela has been a handful on the boards, averaging 12.6 per game and adding nearly 18 points. Eric Gordon completes a very balanced unit, contributing about 16 per game.
This should be a high scoring game and the team and the best player on the court will take control. That is Harden, who will be instrumental in the fourth quarter when the Rockets pull ahead and put the game away. The Lakers struggles will continue and will look for the day King James returns to the lineup.