After a grueling seven-game series, the Houston Rockets earned the right to face the Los Angeles Lakers in the second round of the playoffs. The purple and gold come into the series with four more days of rest then their opponents after taking just five games to beat the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round.
We learned quite a few things about the Lakers in the first round. Their second round series is another obstacle in the journey to winning the 17th title in franchise history and it will likely be a challenging one. The Lakers are favored to win the series, and remain a favorite to win the championship (see their NBA championship odds here), but it will be no easy task against James Harden and company.
Without further ado, here is our Lakers-Rockets series preview.
You can ask anyone with even a marginal understanding of the NBA and they would know about the Rockets’ penchant for 3-point shooting. They attempted at least 44 shots from deep in all seven games of their first-round series against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The Rockets went all-in at the February trade deadline by committing to small-ball. They play small, they run, and they gun from behind the arc. They are willing to sacrifice the battle in the paint and on the boards and bet on themselves winning the 3-point battle (which they did in every game against OKC) and, therefore, the evergreen math problem that three is greater than two. Withstanding hot stretches from Houston’s shooters and being able to limit the damage from behind the 3-point line will be key for the Lakers. Can they run Houston’s shooters off the line and force them to shoot against their bigs at the rim? Can they hit enough threes the other way to make that deficit smaller?
Of course, Houston’s propensity to shoot from deep also means they have stretches where they can go brutally cold. As the Lakers learned themselves in the first round, sometimes a win or loss just comes down to making your shots. Houston has shooters but not many of them are consistently knocking them down. Ben McLemore shoots at a 40% clip from downtown but is a defensive liability and thus plays more limited minutes. Danuel House is the only other Rocket to shoot over 36% from behind the arc over the course of the regular season.
For the Lakers, the key will be to at least limit the Rockets’ attempts from the corners. P.J. Tucker, in particular, is deadly from those positions. Forcing him and other shooters to put the ball on the floor will be the Lakers’ defensive gameplan – even if it’s easier said than done. Meanwhile, the Lakers will have to gauge the advantages of going big to have an additional rim protector and someone who can crash the boards against the smaller Rockets (e.g. JaVale McGee or Dwight Howard) and the disadvantage of that player struggling to stick with shooters on the perimeter. A player like Markieff Morris could be a key here as he can play big on the glass while having the agility to guard wings.
Similarly, Lakers role players need to keep Houston honest by making their shots from deep. The Rockets are not shy about letting poor or even average shooters chuck from deep so they can crowd the paint. Players like Alex Caruso and Rajon Rondo, should he play, will almost certainly get this treatment and need to knock down shots to make up for limiting the spacing. The Lakers can also use them as screeners (especially Caruso who has a distinct nose for that skill) to limit how much the Rockets can play off of them.
Harden and Westbrook
Beyond the Rockets’ shooting, they rely heavily on their two stars, James Harden and Russell Westbrook to carry the load. One of their two backcourt stars will be on the floor at all times and they will place immense pressure on the defense in different ways. Harden is a floor general that will see every pass if you allow him any space.
The Thunder had great success guarding Harden with rookie Luguentz Dort who was able to match his physicality. Harden isn’t a great athlete but his strength is a massive focal point of his game on both ends of the floor. Dort was able to match that strength without fouling one of the best players in the league at drawing free throws. The Lakers don’t really have a player with the same profile as Dort on the roster. LeBron James probably has the best chance but the Lakers prefer to have him guard role players both to save his energy and allow him to act as a free safety to create turnovers. Danny Green, Alex Caruso, and Kyle Kuzma will all likely get opportunities to guard the former MVP and Anthony Davis could also see some time on him if things become dire.
A more interesting use of Davis defensively, however, could be to have him defend Russell Westbrook. Westbrook is the Rocket’s worst volume shooter, hitting just 25.8 percent of his 3.7 3-point attempts per game over the regular season. Davis can effectively leave him open to protect the paint from the Rockets’ dribble penetration. Of course, Westbrook with a head full of steam going towards the basket is a dangerous sight but Davis has the ability to absorb that contact and still contest the shot. The Lakers could theoretically use James in this role, as well.
The Rockets love running pick and rolls with Westbrook screening for Harden because if defenses trap the latter as they often do, it gives Westbrook the ball at the free throw line in a four-on-three situation. Houston will run these sets a few steps back of the 3-point line to give him the maximum space. The Lakers should be able to switch these actions to limit Westbrook’s damage.
Rebounding and Turnovers
The Rockets were out-rebounded in every game against the Thunder in their first-round series. The Lakers won the rebounding battle against Portland in the first three games of their series before losing it in the final two games by a combined three rebounds. Whether the Lakers start McGee and play him and Howard big minutes or not, they should be able to easily out-rebound Houston. Still, winning that battle by a huge margin is necessary to counter the Rockets’ almost certain advantage from behind the arc.
Similarly, limiting turnovers while forcing them from Houston is an additional boost for LA. The goal should be to create a big advantage in shooting possessions (including free throws) over Houston. The Lakers will almost never outscore Houston from three, but they can make up for that by taking more shots and especially by doing so in the paint where Houston cannot defend them as adequately. That doesn’t mean endless Anthony Davis post-ups – those won’t be effective against Tucker – but it does mean getting their big men the ball in space around the rim and crashing the glass with them to get easy putbacks. It also means getting a shot on nearly every possession and not throwing any away due to simple mistakes.
The Rockets showed in the first round that they are not a great team overall, especially when Harden is off his game. But they also pose unique challenges due to how they are built and have an insanely high ceiling (and insanely low floor) due to their shooting variance. At the end of the day, the Lakers’ success comes down to a few things: how they limit Harden and use Westbrook’s aggression for an advantage, impacting the Rockets’ shooters, particularly in the corners, and winning the rebounding and turnover margins handily. If they do all of those things, they should be able to advance even if some hot shooting nights from Houston result in losses. Ultimately, this Lakers-Rockets series will be a riveting chess match between two very different squads but the Lakers’ top-level talent should be enough to put them over the top.