Make no mistake, the Los Angeles Lakers wanted to play the Oklahoma City Thunder in the second round. That isn’t a slight against an OKC team that beat them three weeks ago, it’s a statement on the nature of upsets. Over a seven-game sample, the better team is usually going to beat the inferior team. The Lakers are a better team than the Thunder. Exceptions come with variance, with things that neither team can control. The Thunder, a meticulous, low-upside team that lives in the mid-range and slows down the pace, has few ways of generating it. The Rockets are variance incarnate.
It can work against them in some cases. That’s how the Thunder managed to push them to seven games. But when the shots fall? The Rockets may not be the best team in the NBA, but they are by far the most dangerous. Favorites don’t want to deal with the randomness 50 or 60 3-pointers can bring. The Rockets might miss them all and get swept. They might make enough of them to give a favorite like the Lakers real headaches.
So how will the Western Conference’s top seed approach its most volatile contender? And how will the Rockets attempt to slay the (literal and figurative) Laker giants? Here is everything you need to know about Lakers-Rockets as they prepare for one of the most fascinating series in recent memory.
(1) Lakers vs. (4) Rockets
All times Eastern
Game 1: Friday, Sept. 4, 9 p.m. I ESPN
Game 2: Sunday, Sept. 6, 8:30 p.m. | ABC
Game 3: Tuesday, Sept. 8, 9 p.m. | TNT
Game 4: Thursday, Sept. 10, TBD | TNT
Game 5: Saturday, Sept. 12, TBD | ESPN*
Game 6: Monday, Sept. 14, TBD | TNT*
Game 7: Wednesday, Sept. 16 TBD | TNT*
1. How does Houston defend the Lakers stars?
the Portland Trail Blazers’ upset hopes against the Lakers were predicated on Avery Bradley’s absence impacting their ability to defend a superstar backcourt duo. The Rockets are even scarier than the Blazers in that regard, but their hopes rest on the very question Portland couldn’t answer: Who the heck is defending the Lakers stars?
Anthony Davis is a write-off to Houston. The one game these teams played at full strength saw Davis shoot 14 of 21 from the field. It didn’t matter. The Lakers got outscored by four points with him on the floor. Houston’s entire defense is premised on surrendering the sort of shots Davis takes. The Rockets made the bet that post-ups and mid-range jumpers are so inherently inefficient that no amount of them can overcome the math advantage that comes with winning the 3-point and turnover battles.
Davis plays into their hands in that sense. He used the third-most post-ups in the NBA this season, trailing only Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic, and he took 25 mid-range jumpers in the first round alone. The rest of the Lakers roster took 30, combined. Houston couldn’t have asked for a better first round out of him, because in making 17 of those 25 shots, Davis justified taking them in the first place. Had he missed more, he might have lost confidence in taking them. In the grand scheme of things, that’s confidence he shouldn’t have. He shot 34.9 percent on mid-range jumpers during the regular season, which is in line with his performance in New Orleans. Houston can live with Davis killing them. The more pressing matter is No. 23.
LeBron is the antidote to virtually everything Houston does defensively. Oh, you want to switch every screen? He’ll just hunt James Harden down on every single possession like the Predator. It’s a strategy Harden knows well. He does it to Stephen Curry every time Houston plays Golden State. Not only does it create the ideal offensive matchup, but it wears down the opposing star on the other end. LeBron did it mercilessly to Lou Williams in March.
James is shameless about switch-hunting, and his decision-making is so impeccable that any change-up thrown his way is going to get knocked out of the park.
James has slaughtered defenses out of the post all season. Houston loves throwing doubles at post-ups to try to force turnovers. That works against mortal players with slower reflexes.
Good luck pulling that off against LeBron.
Plays like that are going to be common in this series. Houston wants Davis to shoot, but that’s hardly an ideal outcome. Davis has made 42 percent of his wide-open 3-pointers since New Year’s Day. The Rockets will knock JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard out of the series pretty quickly, but otherwise, there aren’t many Lakers Houston will want to leave wide open.
It’s one of the flaws of this Houston gambit. It’s a defense designed to beat the kind of opponent that doesn’t really exist anymore. Switching everything works really well against the Warriors because their offense is predicated on the motion and shooting that switching takes away.
But the bigger ball-handlers from Los Angeles eat switches for breakfast, and Houston doesn’t have an alternative. P.J. Tucker tried his hand at defending LeBron in the playoffs a few years ago. In a four-game 2017 sweep, LeBron averaged 36 points on 57.3 percent shooting. Robert Covington is no better. Rookie Jayson Tatum and Terry Rozier shot 19 of 26 from the field against him in his last trip to the second round. Chris Paul made 12 of his 20 attempts in the first round when Covington switched onto him.
It would be a waste of his off-ball defense to sacrifice him at the altar of LeBron, but Tucker may be needed on Davis (if for no other reason than to keep Harden, another possible Davis matchup due largely to his density, out of the James-Davis pick-and-roll), and somebody is going to have to stand in front of LeBron and try to prevent him from scoring points. There isn’t an obvious answer here. Jeff Green and DeMarre Carroll both deserve looks. That’s not a great way to start a playoff series.
The Rockets are going to have to live with big numbers from LeBron and Davis. The key to their defense in this matchup is stopping everyone else, and scoring enough points that two Lakers alone can’t beat them.
2. How do the Lakers defend Houston’s stars?
Luguentz Dort locked James Harden up for six whole games, but some clutch defense of his own commuted his sentence. Harden is going to be better in the second round than he was in the first merely through Dort’s absence. The scoring champ can breathe again. That’s bad news for the Lakers.
The only real defense they have against Harden is foul trouble. They held him to 14 points in their February matchup because he racked up five fouls. In their other two games? He averaged 36.5 points. Danny Green will get the first crack at him, but he probably isn’t quick enough for Harden’s stepbacks anymore. Alex Caruso is too small. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is too inconsistent. Even Avery Bradley struggled with Harden during the regular season. There isn’t one Laker equipped to handle him alone. They will likely tailor their defense against the injured Russell Westbrook, Houston’s only non-shooting starter, to helping against Harden. There are two ways they could theoretically do that.
Behind Door No. 1, we have the Lakers bigs. Sticking Anthony Davis on Westbrook offers an extra line of defense against Harden at the rim. The same general logic applies to McGee and Howard, if they play much in this series. The theory here is that Westbrook is such a bad shooter that, even wide open, any shot he takes outside of the restricted area is a good defensive outcome.
The risk lies in allowing Westbrook to build up a head of steam on drives. That’s an easy way to get Davis into foul trouble. The Lakers won’t mind letting McGee or Howard foul, but they slow down the offense. This is all moot if Westbrook is as compromised physically as he looked against Oklahoma City. The Lakers would do everything short of painting a runway for the version of Russ we saw in the first round. Every shot he takes is one Harden doesn’t, and that’s an outcome the Lakers will always accept.
The other option is trapping. The Lakers have had some success against Harden by doing so, both with and without Westbrook on the floor.
But doing so carries its own risks. Foul trouble for whoever awaits Westbrook at the rim is among them, but so is math. If two players are on Harden and someone is handcuffed to the rim to meet Westbrook, there are only two defenders left for three shooters. Westbrook is going to find them more often than not. The Lakers will have to weigh their risk tolerance here. They won’t leave Danuel House Jr. or Ben McLemore alone, but Jeff Green? Austin Rivers? Eric Gordon? The Lakers might be willing to roll the dice on them, especially given how well Alex Caruso closes out on shooters.
There won’t a be one-size-fits-all answer here. The Lakers are going to tinker and throw several looks at Harden. They’ve creatively addressed the Westbrook problem as well. They won a January matchup by throwing Kyle Kuzma at him and relying on his size advantage to great effect. But the Lakers have the same structural weakness against Houston that the Rockets have against them. They were built to defend very different sorts of offenses. Their size won’t mean much here. The Lakers are going to have to switch more than they’re comfortable with. They’re going to have to devote fewer resources to the rim than they have all season.
Houston’s shooting is going to test Frank Vogel’s adaptability. The Lakers can’t rely on what got them here against such a unique opponent. This series will be played on Houston’s terms.
3. What version of Russell Westbrook are we getting in this series?
Quad injuries are fickle. They don’t follow defined timelines. Kawhi Leonard and the Spurs once disagreed so aggressively on the management of his that he asked for a trade. Westbrook’s is simpler, but it clearly hasn’t healed. Westbrook has averaged only 14.7 points and 4.0 assists per game in the postseason. Some of the burst that makes him great is visibly gone.
The trouble Houston has encountered is that Westbrook isn’t playing like he’s hurt. He’s playing with the same reckless abandon that got him here. Westbrook managed to lead the Rockets in Game 7 field goal attempts despite playing the fifth-most minutes on the team. So ball-hoggy was he at the end of Game 6 that, in the final four minutes, Houston played five full possessions without Harden touching the ball. On a sixth, his only touch came on the initiating defensive rebounds. At times, it seems like Westbrook’s mind is ahead of his body when he tries to make passes on the move. It’s leading to some horrific turnovers, especially in Game 6 against the Thunder.
The Lakers forced the third-most turnovers per possession in the NBA this season, and their transition offense is lethal. Beating them means playing mistake-free basketball. That’s not exactly Westbrook’s MO even during the best of times. If he’s flinging passes into the (virtual) third row and flailing at the hoop like a fish trying to escape a net, he’s going to be more trouble than he’s worth in this matchup.
But benching him isn’t exactly viable either. The Rockets survived four games without him because their shooting overwhelmed Oklahoma City. The flaws inherent to the Harden-plus-shooting groups presented themselves as the series progressed: it wears him down. He averaged progressively fewer shot attempts with each passing quarter in the first round, and made only 21.6 percent of his fourth-quarter 3-pointers as his legs abandoned him. The Thunder weren’t good enough to punish the Rockets for that. The Lakers are.
Finding Harden rest is going to be essential if Houston plans on making any noise in the playoffs, but Westbrook has shown no ability to steer the ship solo. In minutes he played without Harden this season, Houston was outscored by 3.4 points per 100 possessions. That ballooned to a staggering 26.3 in the first round. If that keeps up, Houston either loses when Harden rests, or loses because he can’t. Even when they share the floor, a healthy Westbrook is the key to Harden facing standard defenses instead of gimmicks. Trapping is off the table if Westbrook can get to the rim consistently. It just isn’t clear if he can.
Houston needs Westbrook to be a superstar with a capital “S” in this series. Something resembling the 32-ish points on 53/32/72 shooting he posted from January through March will suffice. The Rockets can’t afford anything less. James and Davis are coming to play in this series. Houston’s stars have to at least keep up.
4. When do the Lakers take off the training wheels?
Frank Vogel has good reasons for starting JaVale McGee. Anthony Davis hates playing center. McGee plays better as a starter, particularly on defense. Dwight Howard’s energy is more impactful off the bench. Oh, and Davis really hates playing center.
But the case against McGee seeing even a single minute of playing time in this matchup is overwhelming. The starting lineup they’ve used in the bubble featuring McGee, Caldwell-Pope and Green alongside the two stars was outscored by 13 points across nearly 300 regular-season minutes, and the Lakers lost McGee’s minutes in all seven of his seeding games. That unit doesn’t work against normal teams. What unholy things might Houston’s small-ball mayhem inflict upon it?
The lineup choices extend deeper than just the starters, though. JR Smith played 54 first-round minutes, many of which were competitive. He is 12 of 42 from the field in the bubble, an embarrassing line that drops to 7 of 32 when you take away the meaningless, backup-fueled regular-season finale. It’s not as if the team has played well in those minutes either. The Lakers won their first-round series by a cumulative 53 points, but lost Smith’s minutes by 18.
Sacrificing minutes to players who hurt the team is nothing new to Vogel. The Lakers were 8.1 points per 100 possessions better with Rajon Rondo on the bench than on the floor prior to the pandemic, but Vogel repeatedly cited “swag” as his explanation for keeping him in the rotation. Swag doesn’t win playoff games, and the Rockets don’t allow for little league-level lineup management. Giving the wrong player 10 minutes against a team that shoots as many 3s as Houston can turn into a 10-point swing.
That semi-intentional obsolescence has been a recurring weakness for the Lakers all season. They’ve been so good so effortlessly that a few lost minutes here and there have hardly mattered. They matter now, and it’s unclear how Vogel, notoriously slow in making playoff adjustments, will handle the higher stakes the Lakers now face.
McGee was held out of their last game against Houston, but that hardly provided meaningful data as LeBron sat out as well. Vogel told reporters that he hopes to have Rondo back in the rotation for Game 1, but Smith’s role remains uncertain. Lakers fans have accepted Vogel’s commitment to the status quo as the cost of doing business this season. If left untouched, it will almost certainly cost them an early game in this series.
And that will be the moment that determines their ultimate postseason fate. If Houston gives the Lakers the wake-up call they need to optimize, its championship hopes are alive. But if the Rockets continue to play the wrong lineups, they are going to lose prematurely. The Lakers are good enough to beat anyone, but they can’t beat themselves.
5. How many Lakers role players can survive in this matchup?
To hell with your mismatches, Mike D’Antoni says. Houston will not let the Lakers dictate who does and doesn’t see the floor in this series. They have no qualms making sacrifices on one end for the sake of the other. This is an intentionally imperfect team meant to play a game untainted by its opponent. The Rockets do what they do and live with the consequences.
The Lakers are ideologically plebian by contrast. They have 13 players that, based on what we’ve seen so far and can anticipate moving forward, could theoretically draw minutes in this series. The trouble is that most of them struggle in ways that could prove disastrous in this matchup. Again, the Lakers aren’t built for small ball. Figuring out which of their players can survive it needs to be done quickly. James, Davis, Green and Caldwell-Pope are locks. Kuzma, assuming he continues to defend at the level he has in Orlando, will be as well. So we’ll start with the obvious omissions beyond them.
Smith is no longer an NBA-caliber player. He’s out. Rondo should join him quickly if Houston defends him the way it did Dort. A clogged lane is not a fair price for swag. The Rockets ignore non-shooters, and the Lakers need the paint clear for LeBron’s drives. That should knock Rondo out quickly enough. The more interesting conundrum here is Caruso.
It’s the sore thumb on his otherwise sterling role-player resume. Caruso made only 33.7 percent of his wide-open 3-pointers during the regular season. He’s now 5 of 28 from behind the arc in the bubble. Caruso is going to get the Dort treatment too, but the Lakers will likely be more hesitant to pull him. He’s going to get minutes defending Houston’s star guards that Rondo simply can’t handle, he’s among their best off-ball defenders and his secondary ball-handling and cutting has created genuine chemistry with LeBron. Benching him would be a genuine loss. The swing trait, in all likelihood, will be his finishing. Dort scored in traffic against the Rockets. That was a regular-season strength of Caruso’s, as he shot 66.3 percent from the restricted area before the shutdown. That fell to 50 percent during the seeding games. Caruso may not need to score from behind the arc in this series, but he has to score.
The center minutes are more complicated. JaVale McGee is almost certainly out. Vogel telegraphed that in their last matchup. But is Dwight Howard? That’s harder to say, especially if the Lakers are prepared to pick up the LeBron-at-center experiment they began in their February matchup. Dwight did himself no favors in the first round. He defends the perimeter well, though, and all in all, the Lakers would probably prefer the offensive rebounding advantage he offers to the shooting they could get out of, say Markieff Morris. Morris likely gets first crack at the backup forward minutes, but keep an eye on Jared Dudley. Morris has lost so much mobility that the supposed defensive advantage he offered hasn’t exactly materialized. If the Lakers want a small-ball-five that can shoot, Dudley is a far more reliable offensive option. The difference between a career 39.3 percent 3-point shooter (Dudley) and a career 34.5 percent shooter (Morris) is significant.
And then there’s Dion Waiters, darling of the seeding games, but apparently not of Frank Vogel. The Lakers outscored opponents by 6.3 points per 100 possessions with Waiters on the floor prior to the postseason, the best mark on the team among those who played at least 100 bubble minutes. That came despite an uncharacteristic shooting slump. If the Lakers are good when Waiters shoots 23.3 percent on his 3-pointers, it stands to reason that they’d be a good deal better when he creeps closer to his 35 percent career average. The Lakers have struggled to generate good shots when LeBron rests all season. Waiters finally seemed to solve that problem in the seeding games. Unlike Rondo, defenses respect him enough as a scorer to allow him to be a playmaker.
Vogel held Waiters out of most of the first-round series against Portland. The decision was likely defensively motivated. Waiters has never been a good defender, and asking him to fit in and communicate with a unit that has been humming all season right away was simply unrealistic. He was never going to be able to chase Damian Lillard or CJ McCollum around the floor given all that entails, but this series, despite its star power, offers something of a reprieve on that front. Houston’s offense uses so little off-ball movement that Waiters’ basketball IQ is less of a factor. He can hang with one player, even one of the superstars, and know exactly what his job is. Asking him to execute an X-switch in the heat of the moment might be ambitious, but staying in front of his man? Waiters can do that. Almost anyone can.
6. The dreaded ‘R’ word
I regret to inform those who started watching basketball a month ago that Jeff Green is not, in fact, the greatest shooting big man in the history of basketball. His 33.4 career 3-point percentage is just a tad more predictable than the 46.5 percent he made in seven games against the Thunder. The road to NBA hell is paved with contenders that trusted Jeff Green. LeBron knows that well. Green shot 28.6 percent from the field in the 2018 Finals after a heroic Game 7 against the Boston Celtics got Cleveland there in the first place. The pendulum is probably going to swing back soon.
But regression doesn’t have to be that extreme, or that negative. Austin Rivers made only four 3-pointers in the first round. He’s good for several more in the second. Eric Gordon isn’t going to shoot 18.6 percent from behind the arc against the Lakers as he did in his first six games against Oklahoma City, but he probably isn’t going 5 for 9 as he did in Game 7 very often, either.
This means so much to Houston because it’s built entirely on variance, while the Lakers are built on stability. James and Davis ensure a baseline of offensive competence that isn’t guaranteed to a team that, only two years ago, had an 0-for-27 3-point stretch in a Game 7. Of course, the opposite side of that coin is that no matter how well James and Davis play, Houston can render it moot by hitting 25 3s in a single game. Math is the most powerful force in basketball, and it is Houston’s ticket to an upset.
If Green keeps making shots at an unrealistic rate, the Rockets could win. If Harden, Rivers and Gordon keep missing them, this will be a walkover. The Lakers experienced some of that firsthand. So much of what they do relies on inconsistent shooters making the open looks LeBron provides. Caldwell-Pope and Danny Green made it through their funks. The rest of the role players? Unclear. For all of their machinations, a good portion of this series is just going to come down to shooting luck. The team that makes 3s is probably going to win.
That’s true of any series, but it’s the defining characteristic of this one. The Rockets know they aren’t as good as the Lakers, but can beat them if the variance gods smile on them. The Lakers can stem the mathematical tide by moving Davis to center, spamming pick-and-roll and surrounding their superstars with shooters who can take as many as the Rockets. The Lakers don’t like to play that way, but if Houston’s math advantage proves great enough, they could easily have to.
A healthy Westbrook took this series close to a toss-up. Houston’s stylistic and mathematical advantages are significant, and the Lakers have barely driven their best lineups off the lot in Orlando. There was a version of this series a month ago that had the Lakers dropping the first game or two, Vogel taking too long to adjust, and Houston’s shooting finishing the job. But Houston just doesn’t have enough ways to score if Westbrook isn’t quite Westbrook.
That, for now, is the difference. Houston will take a game based on shooting and another based on Harden. But the Lakers will notch their four wins relatively comfortably as James and Davis bully their way to the basket. Pick: Lakers in Six