With Kobe Bryant sidelined with an Achilles tendon tear, the Lakers (44-37) will need to ride on the back of Dwight Howard to get past the Houston Rockets (45-36) on Wednesday and into the playoffs.
Center -- Probable Starters: Dwight Howard vs. Omer Asik
Howard’s opportunity to lead the Lakers hits center stage against the Rockets. Houston has one of the better defensive centers in the league in Omer Asik.
Asik, at 7 feet, 255 pounds, is taller than Howard. The third-year center has averaged 10.2 points and 11.7 rebounds a game for the Rockets. Against the Lakers, Asik has averaged just 6.7 points and 7.7 boards, although he shot 62.5% from the field in three appearances.
Howard needs to get Asik in foul trouble to get him off the floor. While that makes Houston smaller, it allows them to spread the floor even further with their many shooters.
That’s when Howard needs to dominate the Rockets.
Through 75 games this season, the Lakers center has averaged 17.1 points, 12.4 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game. He’s hit 58.1% from the field but just 49.4% from the free throw line.
Houston can look to intentionally foul Howard as it’s done during the regular season. Howard’s best defense against the Hack-a-Howard is hitting his free throws.
Howard played in two games against the Rockets, averaging 22 points, 12.5 rebounds and 3.5 blocks. He took 14 free throw attempts a game, making half.
The Lakers won their first battle against Houston (119-108) with Howard but lost their second by just two points (107-105).
The Rockets were able to score at will in the third meeting (125-112) with Howard sidelined with a shoulder injury.
Bench: Pau Gasol, Robert Sacre vs. Greg Smith, Donatas Motiejunas, Tim Ohlbrecht
The Lakers and the Rockets are likely to rely on their starting power forwards to back up their centers.
The Pau Gasol-Greg Smith matchup should slide from the four to the five over the course of the game. If Asik is in foul trouble, Smith will take on Howard.
Donatas Motiejunas has gotten some playing time this season for Houston. Neither Robert Sacre nor Tim Ohlbrecht are regular-rotation players.
Gasol may be better suited as center against the Rockets -- limiting his responsibility to try to keep up with Houston’s many outside shooters.
The more Howard and Gasol do inside, the more the Rockets will need to scramble defensively.
Wednesday should come down to the Lakers’ size and power against the Rockets’ speed and shooting.
It starts with Howard, but the entire Lakers squad needs to bring their best game to push the Lakers into seventh place in the West.