Rockets-Lakers: Will Russell Westbrook Play in Key Showdown?

Russell Westbrook, Rockets

Getty Russell Westbrook, Rockets

For the Rockets, a matchup against the Lakers here in the heart of the NBA’s restart in Orlando should be a big deal. Houston has championship aspirations but sits only sixth in the West. The Lakers are tops in the conference, having sealed that position on Monday.

But the Rockets are downplaying the importance of the game and could be without the guy who has been the team’s best player during their stint in Florida—Russell Westbrook, who is listed on the injury report as questionable with a bruised quad for the game against the Lakers.

The Rockets split their two games with the Lakers in the regular season. Westbrook scored 41 points in their last meeting.

“It’s been like that,” Rockets forward P.J. Tucker said in a virtual press conference on Wednesday. “The matchup has been the matchup, we’ve battled every single time we played. There’s no difference. We know if we want to win an NBA championship, we’ve got to go through them and they gotta go through us. It’s one of those things where we just have to be ready to battle.”

Rockets star James Harden, who has scored 1,006 points against the Lakers, second-most against any team in his career, shrugged off the importance of going against L.A.

“Honestly, it’s not about the Lakers or any other team, it’s about us,” Harden said. “Taking these days, these practice days, these games to tighten things up and make sure we are ready to go when it counts. Obviously, the next opponent on our list is the Lakers. We’re going to take it with the same mindset and try to apply that mindset to that game.”

Russell Westbrook Key to Rockets’ Pace

The team’s mindset would take a hit without Westbrook, acquired in a blockbuster trade with the Thunder last summer, on the floor. His speed and aggressiveness have been critical to pushing the team from 27th in the NBA in pace (98.39 possessions per 48 minutes), to fourth at 103.71.

Westbrook’s individual pace comes in at 107.25 possessions per 48 minutes, according to NBA Stats, the highest among starters in the Western Conference (the quick-paced Bucks have five of the Top 6 players in the league in the category).

Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said in his Wednesday press conference that maintaining the mindset of playing fast will be critical for Houston, against the Lakers and beyond.

“It’s a mindset and we talk about it a lot,” D’Antoni said. “You choose to do it, you choose not to do it. How important is winning a championship to you? How important it is to have a great playoffs and they decide. If it is that important then they’ll do it.”

D’Antoni: Playing Fast Offsets Lakers Size Edge

D’Antoni sees a similarity between the Lakers and the Rockets’ previous opponent, the Blazers—both teams can play with size. In the loss to Portland on Tuesday, the Rockets allowed themselves to be dragged into a plodding style of play, unable to make the Blazers pay for using slow big men in the middle.

That should be something the team guards itself against this time around against the Lakers as it seeks to improve its seeding. At least, D’Antoni is hoping so.

“Portland is about the same thing (as the Lakers),” D’Antoni said. “The blueprint will be more or less the same, not that we will change a whole lot depending on how we play. They’ve got bigs we gotta run, we’ve got to move the ball, get them into rotations and then we’ll have to gang rebound and all that. … We just kind of went to their pace. It was a mistake and we paid for it. Now, against the Lakers, we won’t make the same mistake again.”

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