2020 Playoffs | West Semifinals: (1) Lakers vs. (4) Rockets

Series Preview: Rested Lakers ready for small-ball challenge

After Thunder pushed Rockets to 7 games, Houston faces tough test vs. L.A.

The Lakers made quick work of the Portland Trail Blazers, which played Game 5 without their best player in Damian Lillard. But in the Western Conference semifinals, the Lakers face an almost fully healthy Houston Rockets squad that seems to be finally catching its small-ball groove behind volume shooting from deep, and a stingier defense than we all expected when the club first made the decision to go all-in on its diminutive style.

“We’re undersized,” said Rockets forward. P.J. Tucker. “OK, so what? The elephant is in the room. It’s always going to be something we’ve got to deal with. We do it on purpose. It’s not like it’s something that somebody just threw on us and we’ve got to deal with it. We choose to be this size. We choose to play the way we play because we feel like we have an advantage. We have multiple advantages by playing that way with our personnel. So, instead of saying how we dealt with being undersized, I think the flip is really how do other people feel about playing against us, how did they feel in their match ups against us? I think that’s more of a question.”

We’re about to find out, because as Charles Barkley stated on TNT’s “Inside the NBA”, the Lakers present the “ultimate test of that small ball,” given their roster chockful of talented bigs in Anthony Davis, Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee, as well as capable wing defenders.

Three things to watch

1. Three-point shooting will make the difference for Houston.

The Lakers ranked in the bottom-10 in 3-point shooting all season, and the struggles carried over to the bubble, where they ranked 13th among the 16 postseason teams in 3-point percentage (34.3). Houston wasn’t much better than the Lakers in postseason 3-point percentage (11th), but it leads the league in attempts from distance by a large margin. Face it: the Rockets will definitely get up the shots from long range, but if they’re not falling, it could make for some long nights due to their disadvantage on the boards, stemming from their lack of size, and the Lakers’ ability to score in transition. More than 50 percent of Houston’s scoring comes from 3-point range.

2. Can the Lakers score in iso situations?

Houston switches everything defensively and headed into Game 6 of its series against Oklahoma City, it ranked No. 1 in that category, surrendering 101.8 points per 100 possessions. Houston’s defensive style forces opponents to make quick decisions or resort to playing iso ball, a facet of the game in which the Rockets have also proven stout this season. LeBron James is the only Laker ranked among the top 10 in iso scoring in the playoffs (6.4 points per game), and Anthony Davis scores 58% of the time in isolation situations through five postseason outings. The Lakers are 30-0 this season when they shoot 50% or better.

3. What style should the Lakers play?

Los Angeles possesses the flexibility to match Houston’s small-ball lineup with its own version featuring James at the 4 and Davis at the 5. But it’s worth pondering whether the Lakers actually want to do that and negate their size advantage. Houston won both games against the Lakers, after it fully committed to playing small ball exclusively. But when the teams last played on Aug. 6, both James and McGee sat out. It’s worth noting that when the teams met back in February, the Lakers finished at plus-6 in 16 minutes, as colleague John Schuhmann pointed out, with Davis playing alongside McGee or Howard. In the 24 minutes the Lakers played with Davis at the five, they were minus-10.

The number to know

120.2 — After scoring just 103.1 points per 100 possessions over their first nine games in Orlando (eight seeding games plus Game 1 against Portland), the Lakers scored 120.2 per 100 over the last four games of the first round.

The biggest difference was their shooting from the outside. After making just 28% of their shots from outside the paint (effective field goal percentage of 38.7%) over those first nine games, the Lakers have shot 43% (57.2%) from the outside over the last four. Those outside-the-paint numbers for Davis and James combined: 25% (effective field goal percentage of 34.0%) in the first nine bubble games, 61% (77.7%) over the last four.

That last number is surely not sustainable, and the Rockets will obviously prioritize keeping Davis and James out of the paint. They’ve been a much better defensive team than the Blazers, who ranked 20th (of 22 teams) defensively in the seeding games (120.4 points allowed per 100 possessions). The Rockets ranked seventh defensively (109.1 per 100) in the seeding games and first in the first round, holding the Thunder to just 101.7 per 100.

The Rockets were the only West team with a winning record against the Lakers in the regular season, and they had the league’s third-best defense (104.4 allowed per 100) against L.A. But James (the seeding-game meeting) and Davis (the first meeting) each missed one game against Houston. Davis and James didn’t shoot well from the outside against the Rockets, but they took 62% of their combined shots against Houston in the restricted area. That was their second-highest rate against any opponent, lower than only their rate against Cleveland’s 30th-ranked defense (63%).

— John Schuhmann

The pick

Kudos to Houston coach Mike D’Antoni and general manager Daryl Morey for sticking to their vision while selling the rest of the Rockets on the small-ball revolution. But as well as the supporting cast of Eric Gordon, Robert Covington, Ben McLemore, Jeff Green, Danuel House Jr. and Tucker have played in the postseason, it’ll be a stretch to count on them consistently against this veteran Laker squad with so much playoff experience. You’ll see a couple of brilliant performances from James Harden, and perhaps Russell Westbrook, too, as the Rockets know their championship window is closing. But James and Davis will ultimately emerge in this series as the biggest stars. Lakers in 6.

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Michael C. Wright is a senior writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here , find his archive here and follow him on Twitter .

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