Three Things to Know 20200906

Lakers vs. Rockets, Game 2: Three Things to Know (9/6/20)

by Mike Trudell
Lakers Reporter

The Lakers struggled in an opening Game 1 loss to Houston in their Round 2 series, but get a chance to turn things around on Sunday. Below are three things you need to know ahead of the game:

The Rockets figured out a unique new way to play when they acquired Robert Covington in February from Minnesota. Results were mixed: they went 12-10 in the regular season, and needed seven games to dispatch OKC in Round 1, bringing their mark to 16-13. Houston does, however, know exactly what it’s doing, with a specific style of small ball that doesn’t play so small defensively due to how stout their players are in holding their ground, and a switching scheme that keeps opponents out of the paint and away from the rim to begin with.

Fresh off their series vs. OKC, Houston held a Game 1 advantage over the Lakers in terms of continuity, playing the same eight guys they always play, while Frank Vogel tried to re-integrate Rajon Rondo – who hadn’t played since March – into LAL’s rotation. As such, the Lakers used several lineups that haven’t played together of late, and Rondo took nine shots, making three, with four assists and four turnovers. That’s a large usage share for his 25 total minutes that were up higher than expected in part due to Alex Caruso’s foul trouble, per Vogel.

Overall, the Lakers struggled to unlock that specific Houston defense in Game 1. They managed just 40 points in the paint after averaging 52 in the regular season, turned the ball over 17 times leading to 27 Houston points, and couldn’t seem to get anything going in a fourth quarter that saw them score only 18 points. LeBron James took only 15 (average: 19.4) shots with five free throw attempts (5.7), and Anthony Davis 16 (17.7) with four free throws (8.5). James was also three assists shy of his average of around 10.

Since the Lakers know that Houston won’t change the way it plays, it’s on them to determine the best way to match up. Is it by sticking with their bigger groups that feature either JaVale McGee or Dwight Howard at center, and Davis, or occasionally Kyle Kuzma or Markieff Morris, at power forward? Or is it the small ball groups with Davis or Morris at center?

The actual answer is … both. Throughout the entire season, Vogel has started big, but been happy to go small at various points of the game. Having that kind of lineup versatility has traditionally been an important strength for good teams to be able to call upon. There are benefits to both lineups, of course. When big, the Lakers can still maintain rim protection even when AD gets pulled away from the hoop to defend guards on switches or screen/roll action, and L.A. have better vertical spacing at the offensive rim, plus an opportunity on the offensive glass. When small, L.A. can add an extra shooter on offense, giving LeBron and AD more room to operate, and get out to shooters more easily defensively.

Houston can also take advantage of different areas depending on the lineups. If L.A. are big, they try to make the bigs spread out to the corners to cover spot up shooters, leaving a difficult choice of helping stop dribble penetration or not allowing open threes. If L.A. are small, there’s less rim protection on the floor to, again, stop James Harden or Russell Westbrook at the rim.

In Game 1, the Lakers were +5 in the 12 minutes that McGee was on the floor, basically the first six minutes of the first and third quarters. But with Howard on the floor – whom Houston targeted more specifically in screen/roll action on the perimeter – they were -8 in 11 minutes. When AD was at the five, L.A. struggled much more than they typically do, especially on offense, when they looked stagnant with PJ Tucker having success in defensive isolation against Davis.

There were a few games, including against Houston in February or against Utah at times, when Vogel started third quarters with Davis at the five. That’s one option, but again, that does negate one of L.A.’s size and length advantages that gave Houston some problems in Game 1. Of course, if the Lakers simply play better and harder overall, the lineups may not matter as much as we think.

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In the first half of Game 1, the Lakers largely let James Harden get into their paint, shading him to his right and trusting help defense to contest his shots. Perhaps the intention was to take away his 3-pointers, and to limit the open 3’s for his teammates that can come if he’s trapped. But Harden was able to find a rhythm early that hurt the Lakers to the tune of 25 first half points, including nine of 11 free throws, when the Lakers couldn’t seem to avoid fouling the NBA’s leader in fouls drawn. Harden took three triples, making two, and was otherwise always at L.A.’s rim.

The Lakers adjusted at halftime and did a better job containing Harden, often trapping him on the perimeter and forcing him to give the ball up. He ended up with 11 points in the second half, getting to the free throw line only once, and hitting 1 of 3 3’s, plus three turnovers (he had two first half TO’s). The two players who benefitted the most from the extra attention on Harden were Eric Gordon – who had 16 of his 23 points in the second half – and Westbrook – 13 of his 24. But considering that Houston scored 63 points in the first half, and 49 in the second, L.A. may have learned something about the preferred way to defend Harden: get the ball out of his hands, and, above all else, don’t foul him.

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