Lakers vs. Rockets, Game 5: Three Things to Know (9/12/20)
The Lakers carry a 3-1 series lead into Game 5, with a chance to clinch a trip to the Western Conference Finals on the line on Saturday night. Below are three things you need to know:
Try to ignore the fourth quarter from Thursday’s Game 4, when the Lakers were essentially in a prevent defense, and allowed a big run to Houston in which the Rockets trimmed a 23-point lead with 7:21 to play down to as few as five points with 58.7 seconds before Alex Caruso’s corner three from LeBron ended their evening. In fact, put a little bit less import on the third quarter as well, when the Lakers played Houston to a 29-all draw. The game was won with some incredible first half defense from their small ball unit featuring Markieff Morris at the five. We know the Lakers have that defensive club in their bag since that group started the second half of Game 3, and held Houston to 39 points, and then limited them to 41 in the first half of Game 4.
Defense requires five teammates to be on a string, especially in a trapping or switching system against a unique offense like Houston’s. That’s one reason to be impressed with LAL, since Morris hadn’t played with the LeBron James/Anthony Davis/Kentavious Caldwell Pope/Danny Green group at all. Well, you couldn’t tell! The rotations have been crisp, the effort terrific, the versatility on point. As LeBron said after the game, it’s not like this is really a “small” group. Davis is 6’10’’ with crazy length. LeBron is 6’9’’. Morris is 6’8’’. Green 6’7’’, KCP 6’5’’. The Lakers also have two bench players that come in and are excellent on defense, the 6’8’’ Kyle Kuzma and 6’5’’ Alex Caruso. In short, this lineup has all the benefits of being small – shooting, speed, the ability for bigs to defend guards – while still being big … errr … long.
If you’re a diehard that’s watched every Lakers game for the last two seasons, you know how good Alex Caruso is. It’s obvious from the eye test alone. He’s great defensively, whether on or off the ball, standing up attacking players and rotating at all the right moments, getting deflections and so on. He’s great off the basketball (as coach Frank Vogel will detail below, it’s not easy to do both). On offense, he cuts to the hoop at the right time. He sets screens at opportune times to create baskets for teammates. He rotates to the right spot on the perimeter, or cuts to the rim to get himself open shots when the defense focuses on – most often – LeBron.
If you haven’t watched Caruso and the Lakers play, the advanced metrics will tell you the same story. Take just these playoffs: Caruso’s 15.0 net rating ranks second amongst all NBA players in the postseason*, meaning the Lakers are 15 points better per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor. *Minimum 15 minutes per game, and two games played.
Against the Rockets, his shooting stats have begun to catch up with his advanced stats. After scoring 16 points in Game 4, he’s averaging 9.3 points on 58.3% shooting and 45.0% from 3, after going for 5.4 points on 38.1% FG’s and 20.0% 3’s against Portland. Frank Vogel’s a fan:
“Alex shot almost 50 percent from three last year, so I have a lot of confidence in his perimeter shot,” said Vogel. “But he does everything else. His shooting is about 10th on the list of positive things he does for our basketball team. He’s an elite defender that can guard multiple positions. There are so many defenders that you’re either a great containment guy or you’re elite in the passing lanes with deflections and steals, and he’s both. And then he takes charges and has great verticality plays. What he does for our defense is immeasurable. And his versatility offensively is a huge plus for us as well. His ability to play off the basketball, to make plays on the bounce, to run the point. Again, just great offensive versatility as well.”
Among the most eye-popping Game 4 stats that Houston will absolutely have to change to have a good chance to push the Lakers in Game 5 is the rebounding battle. L.A. grabbed 52 boards to just 26 for the Rockets, including a 12-1 beating on the offensive boards. Having just one offensive board tied a franchise opponent low in the postseason (May, 2006 vs PHX). Previously, only three teams since 1983-84 had held an opponent to one offensive rebound in the NBA Playoffs (via Stathead Basketball).
Davis, Green and Rajon Rondo all had three offensive boards themselves, helping the Lakers take 88 shots to Houston’s 65, more than making up for the Rockets being +5 in 3-point makes (14 to 9) and +15 in free throw makes (30 to 15).
This stat speaks to two things: the Lakers played more consistently hard than Houston, though part of that can be ascribed to the Rockets being a bit demoralized at how difficult it is for them to score, and how little adjustments they’re able to make. Meanwhile, the Lakers are simply bigger and longer even with their “small” group, and that isn’t changing. As such, it will have to come back to all-out effort from Houston, which L.A. will try and match to deal a knock-out blow.
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