(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Article written by Michael Knight (@TheKnight97)

The Houston Rockets enter Thursday night’s matchup against the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers with a 2-1 record in the bubble. Last time out on Tuesday, the Rockets dropped a game to the Trail Blazers as they seek out the No. 8 seed in the West.

While the defensive effort was much better for Houston in that game, it was actually their high-powered offense that failed them. It was still close throughout, but it’s tough to win whenever both James Harden and Russell Westbrook are struggling. Danuel House and Jeff Green were bright spots in the defeat, dropping 17 and 22 points, respectively, on good efficiency.

The Laker are also coming off a loss, as they fell just last night to Chris Paul and the motivated Oklahoma City Thunder. They wrapped up getting the No. 1 seed earlier in the week and definitely showed it, losing by nearly 20 points and shooting just 35.2% from the field. LeBron James and Anthony Davis combined to score fewer than 30 points on 10/30 shooting.

So who will be playing?

The main question coming into tonight is who is gonna be on the court in the battle between two of the best in the West. Motivation doesn’t seem to be there for the Lakers, and this comment from LeBron is also pretty troubling.

What is going on off the court that is uncontrollable by the Lakers? It seems that the usual NBA drama has predictably crept its way into the bubble. I’m sure we will get more information about this eventually.

Logistically, it would make sense that LeBron James and/or Anthony Davis would be limited in the second night of a back-to-back, especially this early in the bubble. That seems to be the case, as the injury report says:

LeBron James is for sure out and Anthony Davis is probable. Even if Davis plays, I could definitely see them limiting his minutes, especially with his injury history and the playoffs so near.

For the Rockets, this is still a big game for them. I’ll touch on seeding later, but every game counts for them on their path to having an easier time in the postseason. Unfortunately, they could be without one of their stars in Russell Westbrook, who is questionable with a bruised right quad.

This would be a huge loss for Houston, as Russ was incredible against the Lakers in their win over them in February. He had 41 points that night on 17/28 shooting as the small-ball Rockets got the victory. Hopefully, he will be ready to play tonight, but it isn’t looking to great:

Update 6:15 p.m. CT: Russell Westbrook is officially out, per Jonathan Feigen.

Our good buddy Scott Foster

Rockets fans’ favorite referee, Scott Foster, will be the lead official for tonight’s contest. I’m sure that he will call a perfectly normal game and that there will be no atrocious calls that get people mad online!

In all realness, the Rockets have actually had some success with Foster since the infamous series against the Warriors in 2018, including in that most recent game against the Lakers. As Jonathan Feigen points out, we’ve won a decent few of the recent games with him officiating.

Will the Rockets have to overcome some weird calls? Probably, but the bubble is full of weird calls right now. They will be fine (famous last words).

Seeding implications

As previously discussed, the Lakers don’t really have anything to play for right now, besides finding themselves offensively before the postseason. The Rockets, though, are still looking to find a favorable matchup for the playoffs.

Houston currently sits back in the No. 6 seed with the success of OKC so far (thanks, Lakers). They still control their own destiny for the 4/5 seed spot, which is where they will probably want to be. While the pipe dream of getting up to No. 2 was fun, it was never really realistic, unfortunately.

The best option, in my opinion, is to match up once again against the Jazz in the 4/5 matchup and be in the bracket of these Lakers. Utah is a bit of a mess without Bojan Bogdanovic and Houston looked good against Los Angeles in their last meeting with them. The Clippers should be the team in LA that the Rockets fear more as they can match their small ball with elite lineups. Putting them off as long as possible would be ideal.

A win tonight puts the Rockets back in that 4-spot. It’ll be a fun race to the finish between the Western Conference squads.

Keys to victory

With no Russell Westbrook or LeBron James, this game will certainly be an interesting one. The Rockets will still be able to find their identity with James Harden only running the show, but Austin Rivers will have to step up and lead the second unit. He did a great job of this on Tuesday night when James Harden had foul trouble in the second half.

Clutch City Control Room contributor @Itamar1710 says it well in this tweet:

The offense runs through LeBron James for the Lakers. They’ve already been struggling on that end, so having him absent should make them even worse. Alex Caruso and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, if they play, will get more opportunities to be playmakers. The Rockets absolutely should and need to win this one. Anthony Davis will likely go off (if he plays much), but Houston still should be able to take them down.

The two teams will face off at 8:00 CT tonight on AT&T SportsNet locally and TNT nationally. Go Rockets!

If you appreciate the consistent digital and podcast breakdowns, analysis, speculation, guest voices and camaraderie of our team, please consider one of our monthly Patreon subscription options available here.

While covering hoops is our collective passion, passion unfortunately doesn’t help keep the lights on.