Kenny Smith Breaks Down The Lakers-Bucks, Rockets-Clippers Doubleheader

Four of the NBA’s best teams will square off during a massive Thursday night doubleheader on TNT. The Lakers and Bucks, the top teams in their respective conferences, face off in Milwaukee in a potential NBA Finals preview at 8 p.m. ET, followed by Rockets-Clippers from L.A. at 10:30 p.m. ET, a matchup of two teams jockey for position near the top of the Western Conference standings.

Ahead of those two games, we spoke with Inside The NBA analyst Kenny Smith about those four teams, how they look heading into Thursday night, and where he thinks they’ll figure into the title race next spring.

We’re now over a quarter of the way into the season. What have been the biggest surprises to you so far?

I think overall we expected a lot of parity in NBA basketball this year, and I think we’ve gotten that. The surprise is that the bottom half of the league isn’t as good as we thought it would be. We thought everyone would be a hard game, at least I did. I thought you’d go 12-14 deep in both conferences, and I don’t think you have that. I still think you have five and five. You have five really talented teams in both conferences, and I thought it’d be more. Individually, the level of what Luka [Doncic] has done is the biggest surprise. The level of play that he’s playing at before the injury the other night.

Thursday y’all have a huge doubleheader with four of those teams in the top tier: Lakers-Bucks and Rockets-Clippers. I want to start with that 1 vs. 1 matchup, is there anything you hope to learn from, or just generally want to see out of, what could be a potential Finals matchup?

Well what you’re going to see is how Giannis will take this matchup a little bit more personally. LeBron has been in these matchups where guys are coming for him. I think that we’ll see Giannis in the first time where he really feels he’s better and his team is better. So that’s what’s going to make the intensity of the game, because Giannis wears a lot of his emotion on his sleeve.

So I think we’ll see a lot of that, and that’s going to be what makes the game exciting from start to finish. Because he’s coming for him. He’s coming for [LeBron]. He’s coming for Kawhi. And he doesn’t hide that. “No, I don’t work out with these guys in the summertime. No, I don’t hang out with them.” He says things like that to let you know that he’s coming for them.

We knew the Lakers would be good, but I think most expected some kind of growing pains, particularly with the role guys. Have you been surprised at all with how quickly it seems everything’s come together on both ends of the floor?

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I would’ve been surprised if it didn’t, honestly. Because you’re talking about two of the best five players in basketball and arguably the best players at their positions playing together. So I would’ve been more surprised if they were 4-5 games over .500 right now.

I think the learning curve is, I didn’t think it’d be [that high] because Anthony Davis complements what LeBron does and he doesn’t score in the same areas. I thought at times it was even more difficult to play with guys like D-Wade and Kyrie, because they want the ball in the same places where LeBron is super effective. So when they’re effective, they’re actually moving him out of position, but when AD is effective, he doesn’t move LeBron out of position. He actually is filling the same areas of the floor all game. Which makes it easier, like playing with Chris Bosh was probably easier for LeBron than playing with Wade at times, because they had to figure that out. Kyrie, they had to figure that out.

It’s interesting comparing the approach the Lakers stated last year, where they said they wanted to take LeBron off the ball a little more and we want him in the post. And this year, they’ve unleashed Point LeBron, which just plays to his sensibilities more. This is a guy who, forever, the best thing for he and his team has been him having the ball in his hands and making the decisions. Do you think that’s unlocked even more, them saying not just “you have the ball in key situations,” but “you’re just going to be our point guard” for the most part?

Well he’s always been the point guard — when his game is most effective, he’s always had the ball. So, there isn’t anything different, and when you go to the Finals nine of the last 10 years with the guy having the ball 75-80 percent of the time, why would you change that? Which didn’t make sense to me last year, but they did it. They had [Lonzo] Ball and trying to develop young talent, but then they realized — you know what they did, they just put the New Orleans Pelicans together and put LeBron on it.

They have AD. They have Rondo. They have Cousins. They just put the Pelicans together and said let’s put a team like that together and put LeBron on it. They’ve got shooters around him and that’s it. They haven’t done anything where you go, “Oh my gosh, look at this trade.” They got Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and you can compare them to anyone on that Pelican team, they just added LeBron to it.

The Bucks on the other hand are who we thought they were, to steal Dennis Green’s line. We knew they would be —

Mmmm, no they’re better. They’re better than I thought they would be. I didn’t think they’d be like 20-3.

Well, more just they were great in the regular season last year —

This is different though, don’t you think? I feel like this year is different.

That’s kind of what I wanted to ask you. This is a team where all our questions are about what’s going to be different this year with them in the playoffs — is Eric Bledsoe going to be able to come through in the postseason. And they’ve been dominant in the regular season this year in a way that, I agree with you, I don’t think I predicted them to look quite like this, but what makes you more confident in them coming out of what seems to be a more competitive East than we expected to start the season compared to last year when they won 60 games?

Well I thought last year they won and this year they dominated. I think they have more games this year when they dominate. If you look at both Lopez brothers coming in, DiVincenzo, Wes Matthews, those guys are playing at a different level than their bench and role guys, and that’s not even counting Middleton. So they’re dominating games that they used to just win. There’s no doubt in the game from start to finish. I’m waiting to get a good game. I watch them play against good teams and can’t get a good game because they’re dominating everyone so quickly and so easily.

And Bledsoe has found a rhythm that he didn’t have, I thought, before. He found a better rhythm and it took him time to say, “I have to play off the ball.” He’s accustomed to having the ball and being a traditional kind of point guard, but you’re not that with Giannis. You run the floor, you run the lanes, you spot up. You’re not in the traditional areas of the floor you’ve probably been in your whole life. So watching the maturation of that, it’s happening and they dominate.

All that domination starts with Giannis, who had 48 and 14 in that near-comeback against Dallas. It’s crazy, but he seems to have gotten better from last year, not just at shooting the three which is still a bit hit-or-miss, but in all the things he was already great at when he won MVP.

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He’s unguardable. Right now he’s unguardable. And he passes the basketball, so he becomes unguardable when all those guys around him accept their role and change their mentality, like Bledsoe and even bringing guys like Matthews in, who’s played with great players before and right away just accepts his role and is excited about being that. Certain guys aren’t excited, and that’s contagious when guys are excited about being that role and giving up something. Like, oh I’m OK, I’m OK doing that. And I haven’t been in a practice, but I know what it looks like and those guys are excited. DiVincenzo, those guys are excited about their roles instead of “man I don’t get enough shots,” so then they get more shots. They’re excited about being in that position.

To shift to the late game — Houston, what have been your initial thoughts on the Harden-Westbrook pairing and how that’s gone to start the season?

Telling you, the Houston Rockets are right there with the Clippers and Lakers when it’s all said and done. They’re going to be right there. They have two of the most indefensible players at their position, and when they’re on, and they typically are, what happens if they’re on in a playoff setting in Game 1, they’re good enough to do it for seven games. The advantage won’t change.

The key is, can you hinder them. And I think they’re going to be super dangerous when the playoffs come around. Even though, yeah they have a crazy style and they really take too many threes. All of the deficiencies, but if it’s going to work, those are the only two guys in the world other than you put LeBron in that system, that would work with Harden. Cause you couldn’t put LeBron and Harden together in that system. I think Russell Westbrook and him work best in that system, at the pace D’Antoni wants to play, so this is their year. This is the year to see if this really works.

Speaking to that and the all-in nature that the Rockets are in, they seem like the team most likely to go out and try to get another piece. The way they’ve done everything the last few years, do you think of those top teams they’re the ones most likely to make a move to add more talent or depth or shooting or whatever it is?

If they had Eric Gordon they wouldn’t have to do this. He’s the missing piece. Is it Jamal Crawford, a guy like that who’s sitting at home, or is it someone that’s in the league? It’s because the injury to Gordon. If they had that, they’d have a guy who can come off the bench and give you 20 points, they’d have multiple guys in the starting lineup that can get you 20 points between Capela, Harden, and Westbrook. So now you’re starting every game with 90 points when you have Eric Gordon. In that style, that’s what they’re saying — we’ll outscore you and you can’t stop us. Eric Gordon is the missing piece.

Something else that’s sneaky about this Rockets team this year is that Capela’s going to be able to play in every playoff series. The Warriors would run him off the floor but the Lakers and Clippers aren’t going to do that. I think that’s pretty big for them, that he can be what he is during the regular season in the playoffs and gobble up those boards that they can’t when they go small.

I agree. They to me have a huge upside and the ability to possibly — just like the Lakers, just like Milwaukee — just say at times, we’re unguardable. You can’t guard us. On the pick-and-roll, I don’t care what you do in the halfcourt, you can’t guard us. Those are the teams that traditionally win championships. From Magic Johnson and Kareem, at times, they’re unguardable with James Worthy, Kareem, and Magic. In Detroit, with Vinny Johnson, Joe Dumars and Isiah Thomas, unguardable. At times, Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon, unguardable. Those are the teams that win championships because it gets down to, we’re all equal in terms of talent and structure, but we just can’t guard the other guys.

To close with the Clippers, how tough is it for them to establish a rhythm when you have the alternating Paul George sitting, Kawhi sitting? What do you think is the dynamic of that is in getting them to where we think that they can be, because we haven’t seen them at their peak?

There’s going to be a point in the season where they’re going to have to stop it and they’re going to have to play. You can’t wait for the playoffs for that to happen. I think there’ll be a point in the season where they say, we’ve gotten a good stretch, let’s go 10 games where everybody plays. And I think you have to do that to establish what the identity is, because so many things happen in an NBA game about who is at their best in these moments. When everyone’s going in and everyone’s going out, I don’t know how you can figure out who’s best in each moment. And that’s what they will eventually say, “OK in these 10 games, Kawhi’s playing every game.”

With them, we know Kawhi and we know Paul are going to be who they are, but when we talk about all the matchups they’ll face, particularly with the Lakers bigs, can Montrezl Harrell continue to be. How impressive has him taking a leap once again been to you?

Well he looks like Clint Capela. He does the same things. He runs the floor. He dunks. He blocks shots. They’re both high energy guys. He and Clint Capela are the same person, so I think that if you look around the league, there aren’t a lot of those guys that can actually score when they get the ball in transition. Most of those guys are under the rim finishers, and he and Capela can both catch it on the run and make a nice play.