Three Things to Know

Lakers vs. Rockets: Three Things to Know (8/6/20)

by Mike Trudell
Lakers Reporter

Coming off a 105-86 loss against OKC where the Lakers offense continued to struggle in the bubble, the Houston Rockets come knocking on the only back-to-back of the seeding games for LAL. Below are three things you need to know before tipoff:

OFFENSIVE STRUGGLES CONTINUE
While Frank Vogel’s been generally pleased with L.A.’s defense since the team arrived in Orlando, the offense has been another story. When the COVID-19 virus stopped the season in March, the Lakers ranked 4th in the NBA in offensive efficiency. But due to their struggles on that end in the seeding games, the Lakers have dropped all the way down to No. 11.

“Clearly, yes, we have to be playing better offensively than we’re playing right now,” said Vogel after the OKC game. “When something isn’t working, you either change the personnel or change the way you’re using them.”

At the same time, it’s a bit difficult to evaluate a team that knows wins and losses can’t impact their seeding, since the Lakers sealed the No. 1 seed in the West by beating Utah on Monday. They know they still have four games left to find a better rhythm, to better integrate new guys Dion Waiters and JR Smith, and to figure out the rotations in the absence of Avery Bradley and Rajon Rondo.

A few areas Vogel has suggested need to get better: spacing, setting screens and ball movement. If L.A. execute those things better, they’ll create even more room on the shots they’ve been getting so far. Stay tuned!

HOUSTON’S SMALL BALL
Way back on Feb. 6 – doesn’t that seem like 1997 – Houston debuted its new ultra-small lineup of Russell Westbrook, Eric Gordon*, James Harden, Robert Covington and P.J. Tucker. The fact that they literally didn’t play a classic center threw the Lakers off, and helped Houston to a 121-111 victory. Houston then lost two straight before reeling off six straight wins … only to lose four straight games. They ultimately went 10-7 playing that way, while the Lakers went 13-4 from that point forward to secure their 5.5-game lead in the West.
Gordon sprained his ankle, and Danuel House Jr.’s been starting in his place.

In March, the Rockets appeared to be worn down from playing that way, but then came the 4-month hiatus leading into the Bubble, where they beat Dallas 153-149 in an insane overtime game in which they trailed by seven with 40 seconds left (which doesn’t happen). Then they beat the Bucks 120-116, before losing 110-102 to Portland. They’ve stuck to their mini groupings on the floor, with a typical Mike D’Antoni 8-man rotation, with only Jeff Green, Ben McLemore and Austin Rivers seeing bench minutes.

Of course, the Lakers can be extremely effective when playing “small” while still staying big, thanks to Anthony Davis. He still provides elite rim protection, which the Rockets don’t have in their lineup, while being able to both space the floor as a stretch big and post up/roll to the rim as a classic big. The chess match is all about how often Vogel plays that card, vs. just staying big with JaVale McGee or Dwight Howard. Since Thursday’s game doesn’t count for anything for the Lakers, and it does for the Rockets, we may not see that chess match really play out, but keep an eye on it.

KUZMA’S SHOOTING
While the Lakers are really struggling to shoot as a team, there’s been one player who has not: Kyle Kuzma.

With all the (accurate) discussion about L.A.’s shooting struggles, Kuz has made at least two triples in all four seeding games, having hit 11 of his 22 attempts to lead the team in percentage and makes. Kuzma has seen his minutes tick up from his prior averages, going for 32, 28, 25 and then 27, and has frequently been on the court in crunch time. His defense has also been solid, whether on the perimeter or on switches. He’s continuing the pre-hiatus trend where he posted a 104.5 defensive rating compared to his 109.7 rating in 2018-19.

The 25-year-old still has plenty of areas for improvement, but the biggest struggle for him this season has been a lack of playing time behind two of the NBA’s best players at his position defensively. His minutes went from 33.1 in 2018-19 down to 24.6 this season, and his scoring dropped from 18.7 to 12.5 in accordance. Yet in seven starts, he’s averaging 20.3 point in 32.7 minutes.

He also had a chance to get healthy heading into the bubble, contrasting from the preseason that he missed due to a foot injury suffered in the summer with Team USA. And so, while his rhythm appears to be pretty good, he thinks the rest of the squad will get going soon.

“It’s a little bit of everything, rhythm, chemistry, just everything that has to do with offense,” said Kuzma of the team struggles thus far. “Getting shooters the ball when they’re open, making the extra pass, little things like that. Once we clear that up, hopefully it’ll get better.”

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