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The Lakers Go Small To Win Big Against the Rockets

Lessons from Games 3 and 4 of the Western Conference Semifinals

Game III

The Los Angeles Lakers took a 2-1 series lead over the Houston Rockets Tuesday night with a 112-102 victory.  In a game which saw LeBron James notch his 162 career playoff win, a new NBA record, Rajon Rondo ball out likes its 2010 again, and the Lakers defense return to its regular season’s heights.  The story of the first half was familiar enough, with the Lakers series-long struggle to contain Harden compounded by a bounce-back performance by Russell Westbrook.  Despite their first-half struggles, the Lakers entered the half down by only 3, by the grace of James.  LeBron James lifted the otherwise stagnant Lakers offense going 10/14 from the field, for 29 points in 18 minutes of play.  The Rockets would go on to score just 38 points in the entire second half, a half in which the Lakers would put together their best string of defense possessions of the series. To understand how and why the Lakers were able to pull away let’s examine a few possessions.

Here is the Rockets’ last complete possession before the half.

D’Antoni deserves more credit for these quick-hitting designs, far too often teams use the two for one opportunity to rationalize early contested jumpers.  By setting the initial screen nearly at half court the Rockets are able to get Harden attacking downhill, once Alex Caruso finds himself hung on the Rockets second stagger screen and James splits the LeBron help it’s all over.  Davis is caught between the shooter and committing to help on the drive, meanwhile, there is no lo-man rotation to be found at the rim. Harden would go on to score on the Rocket’s next possession as well. A perfectly executed two for one.

Contrast this with the Laker’s defense during what would become the game’s pivotal stretch in the fourth quarter.

Rondo traps hard off the pick, cutting off the simple one pass to Robert Covington, forces the turnover, and importantly for the Lakers often stagnate offense gets the easy fast-break bucket.  The Lakers were first in the league this year in fast-break points. Their transition offense acts as a stabilizer for the Lakers often non-existent three-point shooting and variant third scoring options.  What’s different about this possession isn’t just that Rondo causes the turnover, it’s that the Lakers backline rotations are synched with the double.  If you are going to double Harden with the screen man or even in isolation you have to be ready to recover rotate along the perimeter. If you pause the video at the point of the steal you can see Morris begin to make up ground between himself and Covington, as Caruso shifts to the paint to potentially challenge Green in the corner.  This is to say that, that while the focus of the Lakers certainly begins with Harden at the point of attack, the defense’s success depends on staying connected and disciplined after the pass.

Look at how fluidly the Lakers switch coverages at the point of the pass, Morris rotating to the lo-man green from the baseline, Davis recovering off the double to tag Green as Westbrook drives.  The same goes for the next clip, Kuzma does a great job closing out on the shooter, which lead to Davis intercepting the obvious read to the corner.

The Laker’s ability to win this series and any future matchup depends on this level of commitment to defense.  Guess what Rajon Rondo, despite being an obvious Hall of Famer (yeah, that’s right) isn’t a guaranteed 21 points and 9 assist on nearly 73% shooting every night, or possibly any other night for that matter. The fundamentals of the Lakers offense are the same as they’ve always been outside of LeBron and Davis will they be able to get enough A) three-point shooting B) revolving third option scoring, ideally Kyle Kuzma C) enough transitions opportunities to offset the variance of option A or B.

The Rockets certainly weren’t down and out after their Game 3 loss; they could easily convince themselves they were an outlier Rondo performance away from beating the Lakers Tuesday night.  However, the  Rockets, in no small part due to the Lakers defense only attempted 30 three-pointers in Game 3. Their season average is 45.  The loss of Danuel House Jr. is significant for a Rockets team with such a tight playoff rotation. D’Antoni likes to play a tight 7 man rotation; and House Jr. is a confident shooter that has shown flashes as an attacker and in transition in Orlando.  The real problem facing the Rockets however is that Russell Westbrook can score 30 points while still posting a -14. Westbrook is shooting 29% from three on six attempts a game in the series, and the Lakers are smiling every time Russ decides to pull up rather than put pressure on the defense at the rim.

Lagniappe

Rondo does a beautiful job making entry passes against a fronting defense, but it’s still something a little bizarre, yet very satisfying about watching Rajon Rondo feed a LeBron James post up in 2020. Look at this beauty.

 

Game IV

I wrote after Game 3 that the Rockets weren’t down and out yet…but Game 4 may have sealed the series fate. The Laker’s defense would pick up exactly where it had left off in the second half of Game 3, holding an explosive Rockets team to just 41 points in the first half of Game 4 on Thursday. After starting JaVale McGee for the first three games of the series Frank Vogel would finally move Markieff Morris into the starting lineup allowing the Lakers to lock in defensively early.

The new starting lineup featuring Davis as the full-time five-man would open the game on an 11-4 run, from which the Rockets would never really recover. The Lakers would go on to win 110-100, a terribly misleading final score considering the Rockets would never lead and at one point found themselves down by as many as 23. Anthony Davis played like the biggest man on the court finishing with 29 points with 12 rebounds while going 9-9 from the free-throw line.

As for the Rockets pretty much everything I wrote about their game 3 loss still applies. Russell Westbrook continues to settle for outside shots attempting 8 three-pointers in Game four. Westbrook is going to have to put pressure on the Laker’s defense which is nearly always in a state of rotating and recovering. The Lakers are working hard chasing Houston’s shooters off the line; and every Westbrook jumper is just a chance for Los Angeles to catch their breath. As a team, the Rockets continued to underperform their season three-point attempt average by -12.

Some games transcend the numbers…this was not one of those games. The Lakers scored 64 points in the paint compared to the Rockets 24, The Lakers lead in second-chance points 17 -3, fast-break points 19-2, offensive rebound 12-1. It was a dominant performance by a confident team. The Rockets now face elimination, a reality which will weigh heavy on the teams two former MVP’s James Harden and Russell Westbrook, who share a history of recent playoff disappointments.

Talen Horton-Tucker

Moving Markieef Morris into the starting lineup created space in the rotation for Talen Horton-Tucker Friday night and the rookie made the most of his opportunity.  Horton-Tucker was a very crafty finisher with great touch around the rim at Iowa St.  I was high, relative to the consensus on Horton-Tucker last year’s draft. in large part due to his feel and ability to use his unique frame particularly as a young player. The important thing for the Lakers is that he didn’t look out of place in an NBA playoff game which will give Frank Vogel a smidge more flexibility moving forward.

CSI: Orlando

Danuel House Jr. was out again for the Rockets in game 4, as the NBA investigates a potential violation of the league’s campus protocol.  House Jr. allegedly allowed a female Covid-19 testing official into his hotel room.  This is the first real scandal of the NBA bubble, that is unless of course, you count Lou Williams putting the entire 150 million dollar project in jeopardy for some strip club hot wings.

 

Rockets v. Lakers, Game 5

September 12, 7:00 (CT) on ESPN

Shay Youngblood

Written by Shay Youngblood

Shay lives in New Orleans and writes about Basketball and other American arts.

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