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Rockets-Lakers Preview

Coming off their worst season since moving to Los Angeles 54 years ago, the Lakers might not be much better this time around.

Dwight Howard and the Houston Rockets certainly wouldn't mind handing them their first loss.

Expectations are exceedingly low for Kobe Bryant and talent-thin Los Angeles, but that's not the case for a Rockets team that hopes to start erasing the sting of last season's playoff exit Tuesday night as Howard plays his second road game against the Lakers since bolting via free agency.

Achilles and knee problems limited Bryant to 83 points in six games last season as Los Angeles recorded a franchise-record 55 losses, finished with the second-worst winning percentage (.329) in club history and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2004-05.

With Bryant entering his 19th season, 40-year-old Steve Nash out with a season-ending back injury and Pau Gasol in Chicago, the Lakers already appear in danger of missing the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the second time in club history.

Though new coach and former Laker Byron Scott hopes this club won't join those non-playoff teams of 1974-75 and '75-76, he's relished the underdog role.

''I love the fact that pretty much everyone has written us off,'' he said. ''That's obviously fuel to the fire. I'm going to use that to talk to our players about how people are viewing us as a basketball team. I love the fact that everybody is doubting us.''

The Lakers' problems began when Howard left approximately $30 million on the table to depart for Houston in July 2013, though a recent report suggested Bryant viewed the three-time defensive player of the year's exit as "a positive."

The dynamic between the two superstars could make for an intriguing backdrop to Tuesday's opener, though it won't be the only one.

With Nash done for the season and quite possibly his career, Los Angeles will turn to a former Rocket as its starting point guard. Houston dumped Jeremy Lin and his nearly $15 million contract to the Lakers in July while attempting to clear cap space to acquire Chris Bosh, though Bosh wound up staying in Miami.

"I'm trying not to build this game up, make it any bigger than it is," Lin said of facing his former team in the opener. "The headline's Kobe vs. Dwight."

Lin, who averaged 13.0 points and 5.2 assists the last two seasons with the Rockets, beat out journeyman Ronnie Price as the starter. Price, the only other true point guard on the roster, is probable for opening night despite a bone bruise.

Nick Young (17.9 points per game last season) is out until December while Ryan Kelly (hamstring), Xavier Henry (knee/back) and Wayne Ellington (concussion) will all miss opening night.

Those injuries will put more pressure on new addition Carlos Boozer and No. 7 overall draft pick Julius Randle, but most of the scoring load figures to fall to Bryant. Still, Scott is being wary of his star's workload - which doesn't figure to be near the 38.8 minutes he averaged in the 15 seasons prior to 2013-14.

"We got a certain number (of minutes) in mind," Scott told the Lakers' official website. "We're gonna stick to that certain number as much as possible."

The Rockets are healthier heading into the season after going 54-28 a year ago, but they felt their season ended prematurely after Portland's Damian Lillard hit a 25-footer at the buzzer to hand them a 99-98 first-round loss in Game 6.

"Losing in the first round was disappointing for all of us and still hurts,'' general manager Daryl Morey said. ''We don't want to go through that again.''

Getting past the first round won't necessarily be easier with some different pieces in place. Chandler Parsons is in Dallas after Houston declined to match the Mavericks' three-year, $46 million offer sheet for the restricted free agent. In his place is Trevor Ariza, who averaged a career-high 14.9 points for Houston in 2009-10, and 14.4 with Washington last season.

Both teams are determined to be better defensively after struggling on that end in 2013-14. Only Philadelphia allowed more points per game than the Lakers (109.2) did last season under Mike D'Antoni.

''We've got to really tighten up defensively, which is a different style than we're used to playing,'' Bryant said. ''But it's a fun style. You've just got to be more aggressive, get down in the passing lanes and take more chances."

The Lakers also expect to employ a slower pace offensively - Scott has said he doesn't want them taking too many 3s - and at least publicly, Bryant seems eager to embrace the team's new identity.

"We're going to be smash-mouth basketball," he said. "That's just how we're going to play. We're a grind-it-out team."

No team took more 3s than Houston last season, but the NBA's second-highest scoring offense also allowed 103.1 points - 23rd in the league. Receiving the most criticism for his defense was James Harden, though the Rockets expect improvement on that end from the NBA's fifth-leading scorer.

''There's a lot of offensive pressure on him to deliver every single night, but you've still got to go out there and play on the other side,'' coach Kevin McHale said.

Los Angeles beat Houston 99-98 in last season's first meeting, but the Rockets won the remaining three by an average of 18.3 points - including a 134-108 rout when Howard returned to Staples Center on Feb. 19.

Harden has averaged 32.7 points in the last six games versus Los Angeles.

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