LOS ANGELES – The Los Angeles Lakers finished the regular season with the second best record in the NBA and the #1 seed in the Western Conference. After a 141-day layoff, the Lakers struggled to recapture the great chemistry and momentum they had before the coronavirus pandemic brought everything to a halt.
They went a disappointing 3-5 in the eight seeding games in the NBA Bubble, and they faced a tough Portland Trailblazers team in the first round of the NBA Playoffs. After dropping the first game of the series to the Blazers, the Lakers finally seemed to hit their stride, winning the next four games by an average of 15 points and closing out the series in five games.
The biggest differentiator between the Lakers’ struggles and success in Orlando has been their perimeter shooting. In the eight seeding games and Game 1 against the Blazers, the Lakers averaged only 28.2% from beyond the arc, compared to the 38.2% average in the past four games.
Additionally, LeBron James’s activation of “Playoff Mode” has also played a huge part in the Lakers’ recent shift in play. James averaged only 22 points in the seeding games; however, in the playoffs, he averaged 28.5 points following the Game 1 loss, which helped the Lakers quickly advance to the Western Conference Semi-Finals.
The Lakers will host the Houston Rockets on Friday for the inaugural game of what should be an exciting playoff series. The Rockets won Game 7 of their first-round matchup with the Oklahoma City Thunder on Wednesday, after a great defensive effort from James Harden in the final seconds. They must now face the tough challenge of taking on a rested Lakers team with only a single day to prepare.
— Houston Rockets (@HoustonRockets) September 3, 2020
“We just have to focus, get our rest, watch some film, go over their scouting report [and] tendencies, and go out there and be ready to go,” said Harden during his postgame interview on Wednesday. “We all know their primary superstars in [Anthony Davis] and [LeBron James], so we’re going to have a tough task, but I think we’ll go for it.”
A “tough task” indeed. The Rockets have fully embraced their “small ball” approach to the game. The tallest player in their playoff rotation is 6’8 Jeff Green, who comes of the bench to relieve 6’7 Robert Covington and play what would be the traditional center position. 6’5 PJ Tucker is their best post defender and will likely be tasked with guarding Anthony Davis, who’s 6’10.
What the Rockets lack in size, the Lakers make up for in… size. While the Rockets will have their hands full with Anthony Davis, they will also need to find a way to account for 6’9 LeBron James, 6’8 Kyle Kuzma, 6’10 Dwight Howard, and 7’0 JaVale McGee. Pretty much every team the Rockets play is bigger than they are, but the Lakers are one of the biggest teams in the NBA, and they love using their size to their advantage.
On paper, this looks like a huge mismatch; however, the Lakers must bring their A-game if they want to avoid an upset. The Rockets still have two former MVPs with Russell Westbrook and James Harden, who are both capable of putting on MVP-level performances on any given night.
While, on one hand, the Lakers’ size and strength can give them the advantage; on the other hand, the Rockets’ quickness and athleticism could just as well give them the advantage. The small-ball scheme spreads the floor to give Westbrook as many driving lanes as possible, while also surrounding him with shooters to kick the ball out to when the defense collapses on him. Also, this allows Harden to pass the ball to an open shooter when he’s double-teamed, rather than passing to a traditional big man.
The Rockets first unveiled their small-ball lineup against the Lakers back in February, a game the Rockets won 121-111. It was the first time the Rockets used this lineup, so the Lakers weren’t necessarily able to do effective scouting; however, this game showed that small-ball could actually work against a big team.
This time around, the small-ball will be no secret, and the Lakers have had ample time to prepare. The Lakers could possibly replace JaVale McGee in the starting lineup with Kyle Kuzma and move Anthony Davis to the center position to help matchup with the Rockets’ quickness, but they could also try and exploit their size by remaining with their typical rotations.
Ultimately, this series will come down to which team is able to exploit their matchups better. If the Lakers are able to impose their will and use their size to their advantage, this will be a very short series. However, if the Rockets are able use their shooting and quickness to negate the Lakers’ size, this matchup could be much closer than anticipated.
Prediction: Lakers in 5. I give the Rockets one game because of the likelihood of either Westbrook or Harden having at least one astronomical performance in the series, but, ultimately, I think LeBron James and Anthony Davis will have their way the Rockets.