LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and the rest of the Lakers will be starting their Western Conference semi-final series tonight, taking on the Rockets. Many are wondering if some adjustments will be made by the team before their next series despite their successes so far in the playoffs. That is more so due to the team they’re facing rather than their own shortfalls, as the Rockets are unlike any other team in the NBA when it comes to the personnel they put on the floor.
That is because of the Rockets’ drastically small roster coming out of their early February trade between four teams, shipping out Clint Capela for Robert Covington. Many at that time assumed another deal would be coming to bring in at least one new big man, but alas, it never happened. The Rockets were ready to fully immerse themselves in small-ball. Funny enough, they almost immediately had a matchup with the Lakers on February 6th, with many expecting Anthony Davis and the Lakers to dominate the depleted frontcourt of the Rockets.
It did not go as planned; the Lakers fell 121-111 on their home-court with the Rockets feeling extremely validated in their decision as their small-ball lineups allowed them to reign down even more threes than ever before. It also gave their defense a great versatility to switch all over the floor, albeit without size.
Anthony Davis personally had a good game, scoring 32 points with 13 rebounds. However, he ended the game with a plus/minus of -4 which was tied for the worst in the starting lineup (Avery Bradley). How were the Lakers not dominating when AD was on the floor?
— Inside The Green Room (@GreenRoomInside) September 3, 2020
Lakers fans have clamored for Frank Vogel to use Davis at the five/center position. Many imagine a run-and-gun lineup with AD at the five that can hit threes while still being versatile on the defensive end. Think of — well — the Rockets, but with arguably the best big man in the game in there instead of say, P.J. Tucker. But is that the best way for the Lakers to unlock the Rockets’ hard-nosed defense?
In that February 6th game, the Lakers played Davis alongside Dwight Howard or JaVale McGee for 16 minutes of the game resulting in a plus/minus of +6 in that time. The Lakers played the final eight minutes of the game with AD at the five, playing a total of 23 minutes with him in that position. In those 23 minutes, the team was actually -10, heavily influenced by the final four minutes of the game where the Rockets caught fire, outscoring the Lakers by 13 in that time (lineup statistics from PopcornMachine.net)
To be honest, in those final four minutes the Rockets not only hit every open three they took, but they also nailed some heavily guarded threes that (*looks around to make sure the basketball gods aren’t listening*) shouldn’t happen again. What I’m interested in is how the Lakers can force their will onto the Rockets defense, as AD should be able to score at will against them.
As we detailed prior to the Trail Blazers series, the Lakers seem to be able to get more out of Davis when he is moving rather than when he is starting his attack stationary in the post. That is due to his elite ability to finish in traffic, while on the move or even receiving an alley-oop in mid-air. This same concept for the Trail Blazers series seems to apply to the Rockets series when looking at film from February 6th. Although it makes sense to send AD to the block to beat up on the Rockets’ smaller defenders, those defenders can really pack a punch. Players like P.J. Tucker and Robert Covington make up for their lack of size against Davis with strength by not letting him back them down to try and finish around the rim. Instead, they want to force him to be a passer or, even better, force him into a long mid-range fadeaway. You can see some of this from the February game below.
Alternatively, below are clips of Davis and LeBron James attacking the rim. They do so through the pick-and-roll as well as getting out on the fast break even if the Rockets are already back on the defensive end. Even if one of those two aren’t able to score, they either have a good chance to corral the rebound or they may have open three-point shooters around the arc for LeBron to dish to. The Lakers can do this with or without a traditional center on the floor, as most of the fast breaks below include JaVale McGee on the floor.
We’ll see if the Lakers use Davis even more at the five than they did on February 6th. Frank Vogel was asked about a possible starting lineup change, leaving it to everyone’s imagination on whether or not he’d make a change tonight. The most obvious change would be taking McGee out of the lineup to have Davis at the five from the jump, but maybe that’s not the change the Lakers need to make to beat the Rockets. Maybe they just need to keep Davis off the block and keep him moving while LeBron James dictates everything else.