PREVIEW: Lakers at Rockets- April 2

Jan 16, 2023; Los Angeles, California, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (6) celebrates at the end of the game against the Houston Rockets at Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

PREVIEW: Lakers at Rockets- April 2

The Rockets will try to build on Friday’s win over the Pistons when they host the Los Angeles Lakers in their penultimate home game of the 2022-2023 season. After losing to the Lakers in Los Angeles back in January, the Rockets beat them at Toyota Center last month, so Sunday’s game will decide the season series.

Eye on the Lakers

Record: 39-38 (8th in Western Conference)

Offensive rating (rank): 113.4 (22nd)

Defensive rating (rank): 113.2 (12th)

The Lakers will play a game with a record better than .500 for the first time all season on Sunday, a result of winning 5-of-6, which has moved them from outside the Play-in Tournament to the doorstep of avoiding it altogether. With five games left on the schedule, the Lakers trail the sixth-place Clippers, who they’ll play on Wednesday, by just a game, but they aren’t safe in the jumbled West. They lead the 11th-place Mavericks by three games in the loss column, so a bad final week could put the Lakers’ postseason hopes in jeopardy. The Lakers have only appeared in the playoffs twice in the last 10 seasons, which includes winning a championship in 2020.

Matchup to watch: Rockets frontcourt vs. LeBron James

The Lakers list James as questionable to play due to the right foot injury that forced him to miss 13 games in March. He’s averaging 21 points, 9 rebounds, and 4 assists in three games since returning, but with five games in eight days to close the season, the Lakers could choose to be cautious with the 38-year-old. James has not cracked the 33-minute mark since returning to the floor. He missed the Rockets’ win at Toyota Center on March 15 after lighting them up for 48 points in January. Jabari Smith Jr., who went viral for telling James his dad played against him when he made his NBA debut in 2002, was his primary defender, and he scored 18 points on 7-of-9 shooting when Smith was his closest defender. Eric Gordon used to draw the James assignment, but he’s gone. You could see K.J. Martin spend a little more time defending James this go around.

What I’m watching for

Sunday’s game will be the final time the Rockets will have a chance to play spoiler this season. Denver has a two-game lead over Memphis for the top seed in the West, plus the tiebreaker, while Charlotte and Washington will have nothing to play for next weekend, so a game against LeBron James and the Lakers with a chance to put a dent in their playoff chances is essentially the Rockets Super Bowl.

“We want to spoil as many seasons as we can,” Rockets guard Kevin Porter Jr. said.

Porter said seeing the Lakers on the other end of the floor also brings out the best in him.

“We love playing the Lakers. They’re fine, energetic, and it’s the Lakers at the end of the day. Big names come in, and that’s usually when we raise up and raise our intensity, and it’s our home, so they comin’ in here, we gotta defend home.”

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