NBA

Lakers Vs. Rockets Series Preview

February 21, 2019; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23) controls the ball against Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) during the first half at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

With the Rockets scraping by the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 7, one of the most intriguing playoff matchups is finally set: the Houston Rockets vs. the Los Angeles Lakers.

Both teams are among the NBA’s most talented but have had their fair share of struggles in the bubble. The Lakers got off to a rough start, ranking near the bottom of the league in points per game (106.4) and field goal % (43.8) in the seeding games.

However, the Lakers’ offense did come to life eventually. Behind stellar performances from LeBron James & Anthony Davis and improved 3-point shooting, the Lakers won four straight games to defeat the Portland Trail Blazers in five games.

The Rockets fared better early on but raised some eyebrows with uncharacteristic spurts of play versus the underdog Thunder. Superstar James Harden shot under 32% in two different games, and Russell Westbrook essentially threw away a potential closeout Game six. Nonetheless, Houston overcame their hiccups and won the series with a gutsy Game 7 victory.

With that said, here are three X-Factors to keep an eye on for the Lakers-Rockets second-round series.

Small Ball

Aug 6, 2020; Lake Buena Vista, Florida, USA; Houston Rockets forward P.J. Tucker (17) gestures after making a three point basket against the Los Angeles Lakers during the second half of an NBA basketball game at The Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Rockets made a controversial move at the trade deadline, sending away center Clint Capela in a multi-team deal. The trade left them without any rotation player above 6’8” and marked their full transition into ‘small ball’ basketball.

Offensively, the playstyle is revolutionary. The Rockets have a surplus of shooters and ball handlers on the court at all times, creating matchup nightmares for traditional defensive schemes. They spread the floor better than anyone else and create endless scoring opportunities for Harden and Westbrook.

This game plan has even more potential to thrive because of the Lakers’ contrasting personnel. LA generally uses a twin-tower look with power forward Anthony Davis alongside either Dwight Howard or Javale McGee at Center. The strategy anchored them to one of the league’s best defenses, but doesn’t match up very well against the smaller, quicker Rockets. Houston’s offense demands that teams defend the perimeter at all times (45.3 3-point attempts per game), which isn’t an easy task for Howard or McGee.

Expect head coach Frank Vogel to consider making lineup changes to combat this potential problem. If he doesn’t, and the Rockets hit their shots from 3, an upset won’t be out of the realm of possibility.

Defence on Anthony Davis

February 6, 2020; Los Angeles, California, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis (3) moves to the basket against Houston Rockets forward P.J. Tucker (17) during the first half at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

While the Rockets’ transition to small-ball opened up their offense, it left them extremely vulnerable on the defensive end. That vulnerability is even more problematic against the Lakers. 

LA has three solid bigs in Anthony Davis, Javale McGee and Dwight Howard, all of whom are over 6’10”. Howard and McGee are not scoring threats in a halfcourt offense, but they can punish the Rockets on the offensive glass and be available for alley-oops off of pick-and-rolls. 

Davis is another story. Along with his prowess as a rebounder and lob-finisher, he’s arguably the most prolific scoring big man of recent memory. He runs the floor, handles the ball, and shoots like a guard while being big enough to score at will in the paint. After an 8/24 shooting night in Game 1, Davis feasted on the Trail Blazers. He averaged 27.8 points on incredible efficiency over the final four games to close out the series.

That hot streak should continue in the 2nd round. In 2 matchups against the Rockets’ small-ball lineup this year, Davis scored 49 points on 65.5% shooting. P.J. Tucker and Robert Covington are capable defenders on bigger opponents, but asking them to neutralize Davis throughout a full playoff series seems somewhat unrealistic.

To make matters worse, Davis is fresh and well-rested. Meanwhile, Tucker and Covington are getting just one day of rest after each playing grueling minutes in a prolonged series. Davis couldn’t ask for a better situation.

Lakers’ Offense Without LeBron James

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

As good as the Lakers have been this year, they’ve had continuously one flaw that’s limited their ceiling: offense without LeBron James. 

Whether he’s with the Cavaliers, Heat, or Lakers, James has always been incredibly valuable to his team’s offense. This year is no different. He led the league in assists per game and orchestrated LA’s offense to perfection on several occasions in the Portland series.

However, the Lakers have relied on James so much to the point that they sometimes look lost without him. Aside from Anthony Davis, they have no true secondary shot creator that can provide a source of offense with LeBron on the bench. 

Plenty of evidence points to this being the case. The Lakers went from a solid Offensive Rating of 112.1 with James on the court this season to 105.2 with James off. The latter would rank just 29th in the league this year.

The disparity has only increased in the playoffs thus far (117.5 O-Rating with James on the court vs. 103.0 O-Rating with him off). While this wasn’t a huge problem against the overmatched Trail Blazers, such struggles will be far more costly against the Rockets. 

Luckily, there might be a solution. LA expects veteran point guard Rajon Rondo to return to the lineup for this series after missing every game since the NBA’s restart due to a broken thumb and back spasms. 

Rondo isn’t nearly the playmaker that LeBron is, but his presence alleviates some of the weaknesses posed by James’ absence. He’s a capable passer with great basketball IQ, who can be the primary floor general. Once he returns, Rondo figures to be one of the Lakers’ most important pieces.

The Prediction

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

While small ball will make the series interesting for the Rockets, it will also be the reason why they fall short. LeBron James and Anthony Davis are too much for Houston’s undersized defense to handle throughout a blistering playoff series. The Lakers should take the series in 6 games.

James Harden’s recent scoring inconsistencies don’t bode well either. It’s become a theme over the last few postseasons for him to fall victim to fatigue in the playoffs, and this postseason looks no different.

Houston’s firepower will put up a fight, but won’t be enough against a Lakers team that’s finding its stride.

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