The Houston Rockets were impressive in Game 1 of their second round series with the Lakers, giving L.A. problems on both ends of the floor on their way to a 112-97 win. It’s the second straight series that the Lakers have opened with a disappointing loss in their opening game, but this is a Rockets team with significantly more firepower than the Blazers and this Game 1 loss felt a bit more concerning.
That’s not so say the Lakers can’t turn things around and do so in a hurry, but it will be incumbent on them to make the proper adjustments to what the Rockets do. A big reason for that is that you can’t take the Rockets out of what they do and force them to adapt to you, because there isn’t a team in the NBA with a greater confidence or commitment to a system and identity than this Houston team.
What makes adjusting to Houston, particularly what they do defensively, difficult is that some of it runs counterintuitive to your initial expectations. As such, your first instinct in a gameplan can lead to some confounding results, which means adjustments are needed. Some of it for L.A. falls into the category of “play better,” most notably hitting more shots from the perimeter, but there are more tangible adjustments to be made we’ll outline a few things here that could turn the tide and help them even the series.
Don’t Try Out-Small Balling The Rockets
As I mentioned above, no one is as committed to their system and style more than Houston. As such, you’re going to have a very difficult time beating them at their game. Playing big is still the way to attack this Rockets team, particularly given the personnel the Lakers have, it’s just being smart about how you use your big lineups.
The Thunder showed in the first round that having your perimeter players attack the Rockets off the bounce in isolation when they get a favorable matchup can get good looks inside or collapse the defense to open up shooters. As Tim of the B-Ball Index points out in an excellent thread here, holding someone in the dunker’s spot against this Houston team is an effective way to force the Rockets not to help at the rim, as their way of preventing lobs is to keep a body on a big to keep them from being at the rim.
A concept I discuss often is *functional* spacing, which is about where the defense stands rather than where the offense stands.
Here, McGee isn't far from the rim, but out of fear of McGee as a lob threat, his man can't leave him to help on the LeBron drive until it's too late. pic.twitter.com/xqgshPrjWM
— Cranjis McBasketball (@Tim_NBA) September 5, 2020
The Lakers have a deep frontcourt and they should use that more than they did in Game 1, when JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard combined for just under 24 minutes on the court. It can help open things up for LeBron James going to the basket as well as keeping Anthony Davis in 1-on-1 situations. When the Rockets aren’t helping, the Lakers are at the advantage. When you go small and allow them to switch and collapse and chase, even though it looks frantic that’s where they’re at their best on defense.
Playing big is important, but you have to be smart about how you try and take advantage of those perceived mismatches. The Rockets love to bait teams into falling in love with post-ups. Going to the post is the first thing people think about when they see the small-ball lineup with no one taller that 6’7 on the floor. Davis is great at a lot of things, but post play is not his strongest attribute. On the regular season, he averaged 0.9 points per possession on post ups, shooting 44.6 percent from the floor, per NBA Stats, and while he’s seen that jump to 1.07 points per possession in the playoffs, it’s still playing into the hands of this Houston defense. To take advantage of Houston’s size disadvantage, the answer isn’t more physicality. It’s more verticality.
The Rockets may be short, but they’re still strong. They play with incredible energy and effort, so trying to back them down doesn’t often yield an opportunity right at the rim where your advantage is at its greatest. The Lakers would be wise to use Davis as a roll-man more, where he excelled this season at 1.28 PPP, hitting 59.1 percent of his field goal attempts as the roll-man, per NBA Stats. Getting Davis — and McGee/Howard — rolling to the rim for lobs and catches deeper in the paint as a roller rather than posting up would produce far superior opportunities for him. You can even take advantage of getting Davis moving downhill with one of Howard or McGee in the weakside dunker spot, forcing Houston into quite the compromising position of not helping on Davis catching the ball off the roll towards the rim or risking leaving a lob for the other big.
Less Rajon Rondo
This isn’t the series to have non-shooters on the perimeter, even accounting for the Lakers’ dire need for more play-making. Rondo’s minutes should almost exclusively come with LeBron off of the court to serve as the primary facilitator for bench units, as he just causes problems for James and the Lakers’ spacing when they share the floor. LeBron is going to see extra bodies just about every time he puts the ball on the floor, and if Rondo is out there, it makes for a very easy decision for Houston who to leave open when they send help at James.
Now, their shooters (or, at least, the ones who are shooters in theory) have to be better and knock down shots — [stares in Danny Green and KCP] — but Rondo is such a non-threat that leaving him is a no-brainer for the Rockets defense. If you want to avoid a packed paint for James and Anthony Davis, Rondo can’t be one of your floor spacers. With a bench unit that could desperately use some creativity with James not on the court, I can more than understand shoveling Rondo minutes because, as I mentioned earlier, ball-handling and play-making is not a strength of this team. However, his minutes need to be limited, particularly as he works off some rust, and there’s no reason for him to have the sixth-most minutes on the team.
Don’t Let Eric Gordon Be A Factor
Defensively, the Lakers have to pick up their energy level a lot to match what Houston does. James Harden is going to do what he does, while Russell Westbrook was really good going downhill in Game 1 and made some big plays. However, this offense becomes an entirely different beast when Gordon is cooking because of his threat as a perimeter shooter. Gordon had 23 points on 7-for-14 shooting and that made a big difference in the opener for this Houston offense.
Sometimes Gordon can struggle to stay engaged with Harden and Westbrook as the two lead ball-handlers, but when they get him involved early and defenses allow him to get in rhythm, this becomes a nearly impossible offense to stop. Knowing who to help off of and who not to is the greatest test of defensive discipline in the modern NBA, because the best players in the world command help on the ball. Houston’s entire offense is predicated on making defenses struggle with that decision.
The easiest answer on the Rockets is Westbrook, because if he’s shooting threes, the defense is happy, and you don’t have to worry about hard closeouts, instead focusing on cutting off a driving lane with your rotation. The last guy that should be getting left is Gordon, because he’s the most capable three-point shooter and a quality ball-handler who can initiate offense immediately off the dribble if a closeout comes too hard. Everyone else on the floor is either merely a spot up shooter who you want to run off the line if able.
The Lakers gave Gordon too much opportunity in the opener, and needs to give him more focus to try and put more pressure offensively on Harden and Westbrook to be the sole creators on offense.