There’s a difference between playoff experience and playoff confidence: One is useful. The other is downright powerful.
Twice now, the Lakers have suffered Game 1 defeats in the playoffs. The responses, also twice now, have sprung from their steadiness rather than panic.
Before Game 2 of the second round against Houston on Sunday, even Lakers legend James Worthy was saying in the Spectrum SportsNet studio: “I’m panicking because you don’t have that home-court advantage.” Indeed, that game would’ve in a normal season been a home playoff game, with Lakers fans at Staples Center making certain the Western Conference’s top-seeded team felt support to offset any anxiety.
But the Lakers played with confidence rather than insecurity from the very start Sunday. And even though they weren’t literally part of the very start, the four Lakers who accounted for almost all the team’s minutes off the bench epitomized the team’s confidence.
Rajon Rondo, Markieff Morris, Kyle Kuzma and Alex Caruso were all major net positives for the team, as seen in their plus-minus ratings. On the flip side, all of Houston’s main bench players—Danuel House Jr., Jeff Green and Austin Rivers—posted their team’s worst plus-minus ratings.
The Lakers’ lead Sunday was only 10-9 when Rondo and Kuzma were the first reserves into the game. By the time Rondo left the game early in the second quarter (with Kuzma, Morris and Caruso staying out there), the Lakers led, 40-21.
A team with LeBron James and Anthony Davis is not consistently going to need anyone else to shoulder more than a mere portion of the load. What is required, however, is that those other guys have their hands confident and ready to carry a load, especially in critical playoff situations.
Because he has moved around the league a lot and has an identical twin brother for whom many mistake him, few realize that Morris is in the NBA playoffs for a fourth consecutive year. Twice with Washington, then Oklahoma City, and now the Lakers.
Morris is the only player on this veteran-loaded team besides Danny Green who is able to say that.
Green is remarkably in his 10th consecutive year of NBA playoff action. And he’s actually 11 for 11 in his career if you count the fact that Green was on Cleveland’s roster but didn’t play in the 2010 playoffs as a rookie.
But Morris’ recent good fortune comes with a far different context. Morris never made the playoffs until 2017, his sixth NBA season. Even then, he was the only starter on that Wizards team not to have any playoff experience.
That gave Morris a unique appreciation for the opportunity—which he seized with 21 points in securing a victory in his playoff debut. He similarly is looking to seize these days against Houston, understanding he is more likely to get playing time against this undersized Rockets front line.
So, Morris blamed himself for the Lakers’ Game 1 loss far more than you would figure a role player who took only one shot ever would.
This is what Morris said between Games 1 and 2: “I’ve got to bring the energy when I come off the bench, be a dog out there. They’ve got a lot of dogs, but we can match them at any tactic on the floor. We’ve just got to want it more. We’ve just got to come with that same energy that we came with after we played the Blazers in Game 1 and use that as motivation. They beat us in Game 1, and we used that as motivation throughout the rest of the series.”
Morris proceeded to steal the show in Game 2 vs. Houston—set up artistically by Rondo for first-quarter three-point buckets time after time after time after time in a span of less than three minutes. Morris scored 16 points for the game, promised afterward that “I’m playoff-ready,” and described his clutch performance as “feeling normal.”
This is more of what Morris said after Game 2: “Last game, I felt like I didn’t affect the game at all. And it’s not even just making shots. I just felt like I didn’t do anything. I didn’t bring no energy. I didn’t bring no toughness. I didn’t rebound the ball. I had zero stats across the board. So, I felt like I have to be a little more aggressive. This is the best series for me to play a lot of minutes.”
There are only those kinds of expectations for one’s self if there is real confidence behind it. Morris has playoff experience, but he’s also just a confident guy—known throughout the league for the bringing an edge to the game.
That’s why James, even in saying Morris was “spectacular” on a big scoring night, brought up the “grit” that Morris consistently brings. James said: “We love having him on the floor.”
Expect Morris’ assertiveness to show up throughout the rest of this series no matter how many shots he takes. Long after his early hot shooting stretch, Morris helped overcome Houston’s third-quarter rally with a daring deep inbounds pass for Caruso to collect on the fly and bounce over for Kuzma’s dunk, giving the Lakers a 102-96 fourth-quarter lead.
Not long after that, Green used his usual frequent-flyover move perfectly, nailing a post-pump-fake corner three-pointer for a 107-101 Lakers lead. Green made three of five from three-point range in Game 2 after the team missed 27 three-point attempts in Game 1.
A history of ups and downs on that long playoff resume, Green’s confidence isn’t shaken by a few or even a lot of playoff misses. He was shooting in rhythm Sunday, not overthinking how open or not open he was.
“That’s what the playoffs are about,” Green said. “Your superstars are going to play well. It’s what your others do.”
If part of the playoff mind game is who carries more confidence, it’s only logical that both teams play it. Houston’s Eric Gordon said: “We beat ourselves totally” after Game 2. Then James Harden took direct aim at the output that Lakers such as Morris and Rondo provided.
“Even though we lost,” Harden said, “we’re even more confident that we have a chance because we didn’t play well and we let some of their players and role players get off and have opportunities to score, which we can control.”
Harden had already dismissed the Lakers’ height advantages in the wake of Houston’s Game 1 victory by expressing confidence in his side’s spirit.
“If you don’t have heart, it doesn’t matter,” he said of height. “If you don’t have dog in you, it doesn’t matter.”
One thing the Lakers’ folks have always said about Rondo, whether he has his best or worst game: He plays with a confidence that matters. Lakers coach Frank Vogel calls the “swag” contagious. Besides Rondo’s passing (nine assists vs. one turnover), scoring (10 points) and team-defense orchestration in Game 2, his determination to confront Harden and Russell Westbrook with individual defense late in the third quarter was inspiring.
Rondo took the ball from Harden with full-court pressure for a layup on one play and then similarly caused a Westbrook turnover and foul soon after. Rondo was so sure the Westbrook play would result in a successful coaches’ challenge by the Lakers that Rondo was calling Davis, James, Caruso and Morris over for an organizational huddle while the referees finished reviewing it.
Fans hold their breath when Rondo is left unguarded for a three-point shot. Lakers coaches and teammates put their trust in how much Rondo knows and shares that can help the whole team—including scrutinizing video to the point where the smallest nuance can suggest to him the tendencies for how to pick Harden’s pocket or when to morph into a traffic cone in front of Westbrook’s high-revving engine.
Rondo’s five steals in Game 2 marked the ninth time he has done that in a playoff game. Only Michael Jordan has done that more in NBA history.
The reputation of “Playoff Rondo” was built on self-confidence, and Green was reassured by seeing that even amid Rondo’s missteps in Game 1, his first outing in six months because of the NBA hiatus and a thumb fracture. Green said Rondo provided “energy, activity, floor leadership” despite the Lakers’ loss.
And Rondo certainly refined all those things in Game 2. The rest of the series, starting with Game 3 Tuesday, might hinge on those kinds of intangibles from Rondo, Morris and other Lakers role players—even if Houston expects to limit their scoring.
In both games so far this series, Lakers coach Frank Vogel has opened the fourth quarter with Rondo and Morris on the floor. Had they not come through Sunday, the Lakers would’ve been halfway to elimination.
The Lakers were down, 92-90, and hadn’t won a game they trailed after three quarters in these playoffs. Davis, who referred to Rondo and Morris as “two guys who aren’t afraid of anything,” said the Lakers’ mindset at that time was not panic.
“Our job is to win the fourth quarter at that point,” Davis said. “What we’re thinking about is winning the fourth quarter. In that situation, we’re not thinking about being down, 0-2.”
The resulting 1-1 series tie was earned with that tenacity.
And Morris said future victories don’t depend as much as you might think on him and his teammates making more of those pretty three-pointers at which Houston is so good.
“They are small, scrappy guys. They are going to scrap,” Morris said. “We’ve just got to scrap with them.
“It’s the small things that are going to win the series for us.”
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Kevin Ding is an independent sports writer, and the statements and views
expressed by him do not necessarily represent the views of the
Los Angeles Lakers.
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