For most of the season, the LA Lakers have relied on a two-big line-up with Anthony Davis slotting at the four slot and either JaVale McGee or Dwight Howard next to him. With LeBron James running the point, and Danny Green and Kyle Kuzma playing heavy minutes, the Lakers can trot out lineups with no player shorter than 6’5″.
The opposite goes for the Houston Rockets. After trading Clint Capela away at the deadline, the leaned heavily into their small ball system. They surrounded their superstars James Harden and Russell Westbrook with shooters and defenders, as a result, they play a big man rotation that stands at no taller than 6’7″.
The Rockets going up against Lakers is a fun Playoff battle because it would feature a micro-ball system versus a team who has gone big all season long. With both sides healthy and ready to go, this should be a good matchup.
Here are some trends to look out for as they head deeper into the series.
Houston is the league’s best D
By now, we should probably retire the argument that the Rockets don’t know how to play D. How 2020 is it to see that for a good stretch in the bubble, the Rockets led the league in defense, netting a defensive rating of 101.4. Heck, even James Harden closed out the series against OKC with a game-winning block.
We’ve seen some pretty unimaginable things this year and you could certainly add that to the list.
By letting go of Capela and acquiring key pieces in Robert Covington and Jeff Green, the team sacrifices height for even more versatility, which has proven to be a winning formula in the bubble so far. The key to their new-found strength is that the Rockets do a great job of staying in front of their assignments since all five guys on the floor can defend multiple positions. They have done a great job switching on coverages and their lack of a rim protector is replaced by reactive help defense whenever opposing teams drive to the basket.
Should the Lakers yield to smaller lineups?
In their first meeting, the Rockets scored 42 points in the paint while the Lakers only made 40. For the Lakers, having a big man on the floor will only be a liability if their rim protectors are not doing a better job locking up the inside. The Lakers looked offensively-challenged when either McGee or Howard was in the game because it left their stars little space to work with on offense.
For a Rockets team who almost always ends each possession with either a layup or a three-pointer, slotting Davis at the five spot and inserting either Kuzma or Markieff Morris at the four position seems like a reasonable option since it would give LA more ideal match-ups in pick-and-roll coverages, given that both Kuzma/Morris and AD are capable of taking on guards one-on-one. A smaller, more agile lineup could also solve repeated blow-by drives from either of the Rockets’ guards since a lot of their points are generated by chances created after attacking hard closeouts.
Rockets are playing bigger than their size
Many expected the Lakers to gain somewhat of an advantage on the boards just by their sheer size alone. Coming into the second round, the Lakeshow were a good rebounding team, notching 48.4 rebounds per contest (4th in the bubble).
But the result after Game 1? A 41-41 tie in the rebounding department.
That’s a huge win for Houston when you consider that guys like P.J. Tucker (6’5″) are cleaning the glass over people like JaVale McGee (7’0″).
The Rockets front court is slowly proving that you don’t need a traditional big man to lock up the paint and secure defensive rebounds. Tucker in particular did an excellent job containing the bigs in the post by staying low and having active hands, making them think twice about attacking the paint. What the Rockets lack in size are wildly offset by the amount of effort they put in on the defensive end. The Rockets have done a stellar job denying the entry pass into the post by fronting big men and forcing turnovers on lazy passes.
The Lakers should channel their inner Dort
I’m dedicating a subsection of this article to Lu Dort because that was just how good his defense was on Harden.
While it may not be possible to completely replicate the masterful defense of Dort, the Lakers should emphasize keeping the former MVP beyond the arc because Harden excels in creating chances for him and his teammates when you give him an open lane at the hoop.
In this play, you could see Harden getting past LeBron easily, forcing McGee to switch on to the drive. Although The Beard managed to get the and-one, another option for him was to kick out the ball to Tucker, who had a wide-open trey in the corner.
Now if you take the previous play and compare it to how Dort regularly hounded Harden on each possession, you would get a clearer picture as to why the Thunder were able to extend their series to seven games against Houston. Since Harden knew that he wasn’t going to get anything out of Dort, he retreated and kicked the ball out to Covington to make the play.
Neutralizing Harden by playing him one-on-one takes away so many opportunities that he can open up for his team since the Rockets can simply swing the ball until they find an open shooter.
It’s the Western Conference Semis and lazy defense won’t do, especially against a player as good as Harden.
Who (else) will step up for L.A.?
For the first time in his career, it’s very possible that James entered this year’s Playoff run alongside another bonafide All-NBA 1st Team selection in Davis. In his first legitimate title run in the postseason, AD has carried a significant scoring load, logging in 29.7 PPG (58.9%), 10.1 RPG, and 1.7 BPG while James has been busy running the show for the team.
Here’s an interesting stat: during the Playoffs, the Lakers average 53 FG% and 39.4 3P% in wins. In their two losses, those values dip significantly at only 38.3 FG% and an even worse 22.9% from three. Following this trend, the rest of the Lakers cast have to keep in mind that if they shoot better than 50 FG% as a unit, it would almost always guarantee a W.
LA’s two all-stars will contribute big numbers even on an average night, but the team cannot simply rely on these two stars if they expect to have a shot at the NBA Finals. They need help from the rest of the team to get the job done.
Who moves on?
This series could go all the way depending on which team catches fire. Both squads have their reasons as to why they can advance to the next round. Given the small sample size, it’s still quite hard to tell who can make it to the next round since we have just seen what both teams are capable of doing when matched against each other.
In Game 1, it was clear in the Lakers’ body language that the Rockets had already defeated them midway through the fourth quarter. At times, it looked like the Lakers were the ones coming off a grueling seven-game series. In Game 2 however, the Lakers responded by outplaying Houston in their own game. The Lakers were able to match the Rockets’ energy on the court and the numbers don’t lie. Although the Rockets connected on 22 triples (41.5 3P%), the Lakers capitalized on fastbreak points (+14), and points in the paint (+18) to ice the game.
Just like in Round 1, the Lakers were able to take Game 2 en route to a gentleman’s sweep to dispatch Portland in 5. The pressure will now be on Houston to break the pattern that the Lakers have started.
But hey, if you thought at the beginning of the year that the Rockets leading the league in defense was unimaginable, then maybe knocking out the 1st seeded team in the West isn’t too far off after all.