Lakers vs. Houston Rockets preview

The Lakers play host to the Houston Rockets on Sunday

The Lakers (12-31) have lost seven in a row coming into their Sunday-night battle against the Houston Rockets (30-14).

They'll play without Kobe Bryant, who may be out for the season with a torn rotator cuff.

Houston may not have center Dwight Howard, doubtful with an ankle injury.

The Rockets are fighting for playoff position, while the Lakers are a bottom four team -- which may not be a bad thing given that the Lakers owe a top-five protected pick to the Phoenix Suns in the 2015 NBA draft.

The Lakers own Houston's first-rounder as well, as part of the Lin trade.  A Rockets' win will help the Lakers protect their own pick; a Lakers' victory may improve the selection the Lakers are getting from Houston.

In a way, it's a win-win for the Lakers regardless of which team ends up on top.

Meanwhile, the Lakers probably won't have Tarik Black (ankle), while Julius Randle (leg) and Steve Nash (back) are done for the year.  Terrence Jones (leg) won't play for the Rockets.

Key matchup

James Harden is dominating the league this season, averaging 27.3 points a game while shooting 45.1% from the field and 38.6% from three-point range.

He's also dishing 6.8 assists a night with 5.5 rebounds, 2.0 steals and 9.2 free-throw attempts.

Harden is extremely difficult to guard.  Wayne Ellington, Bryant's replacement in the starting lineup, will have a challenge on his hands on Sunday.

The Lakers can try Wesley Johnson, Jordan Clarkson, Ryan Kelly, Nick Young, Ronnie Price, Jeremy Lin and others against Harden -- few teams have great success against the high-scoring guard.

Offensively, Coach Byron Scott has turned to rookie Jordan Clarkson as the team's starting point guard.

Clarkson is an explosive athlete, still learning the pace of the NBA game, but now is the time for the Lakers to prioritize player development.

X-factor

The Rockets have a number of players capable of big nights including Trevor Ariza, Josh Smith, Patrick Beverley, Corey Brewer and Donatas Motiejunas.

Houston will likely be playing short-handed, as are the Lakers.

Sans Bryant, the Lakers need a strong performance from a variety of players -- especially those at power positions like Jordan Hill, Ed Davis, Carlos Boozer and Robert Sacre.

Outlook

The Lakers have beaten the Rockets without Howard before this season, but Bryant scored 29 in that game.

A win for the home team will be difficult on Sunday night.

Twitter: @EricPincus

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