For the first time since 2010, the Los Angeles Lakers are headed to the Western Conference Finals. The team put forth one of its best two-way efforts that we’ve seen during its stints in the NBA’s Orlando Bubble, picking up a 119-96 win over the Houston Rockets to secure a 4-1 series win.
The Lakers will now have a few days off, waiting to figure out whether or not their opponent in the next round will be another team that calls the Staples Center home. But before then, let’s look back on what the Lakers did to win Game 5, and some of the questions that face the Rockets as they enter an offseason with more questions than answers.
1. The Lakers will win a title if they can shoot like this
The Lakers are not a particularly good shooting team. They’ve hung their hat all year on defense and being very good inside the three-point line, but during the regular season, L.A. was 23rd in threes made and attempted and 21st in three-point field goal percentage. In a league that is increasingly emphasizing hitting triples, the Lakers have decided to go in the other direction, and they’ve won a ton because of it.
Having said all of this, the Lakers ran the Rockets off the court in Game 5 because they got thermonuclear hot from behind the arc. The team hit 19 of their 37 attempts from deep, good for a 51.4 percent success rate. Markieff Morris went 4-for-4, Danny Green went 4-for-6, Kyle Kuzma went 3-for-6, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope went 4-for-6. Even LeBron James hit three of his eight triples.
The big thing with hitting threes for L.A. is it frees up space for James, Anthony Davis, and whatever big men they have on the floor at a given time to go to work in the paint. As a result, Los Angeles went 20-for-34 (54.5 percent) on twos. James and Davis combined to go 10-for-19 on twos and shot 16 combined free throws.
While the Lakers aren’t going to connect on more than 50 percent of their threes on a given night, hitting a bunch of them is something that has worked out well for them. They were 5-0 during the regular season when connecting on more than 15 triples and are 7-1 this postseason when they make at least 10. Shooting is still a valuable commodity in basketball, even for a team like Los Angeles that didn’t build its team around that.
2. Balance helps, too
L.A.’s formula is basically that James and Davis will do so much on a given night that everyone around them will just need to do enough to get them over the hump. Saturday’s game saw part of that equation come true — James had 29 points, 11 rebounds, and seven assists — while Davis was relatively quiet, scoring 13 points, pulling down 11 boards, and dishing out four assists.
The good news for Davis was that a number of other players did exactly what we needed to do. The shooting that all of the previously mentioned dudes led to nice evenings for Kuzma (17 points, four rebounds), Morris (16 points, three rebounds, three assists), Green (14 points, four rebounds), and Caldwell-Pope (10 points). As is the case with their shooting, if those four dudes — or any of their additional role players — can combined to score 57 points, Los Angeles is going to win a bunch of games. And of course, they defended quite well as a team, holding Houston to 37.1 percent shooting from the field and 26.5 percent shooting from three.
3. Houston, woof
The Houston Rockets went all-in on a concept. Their bet: If we build a team that lets it fly from three, does not let you get anything easy on defense, and ramps up the pace of the game, we will have more good days than bad, and we will be able to make a run this postseason. It took seven games to barely beat the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round, then in a fashion that has unfortunately become this team’s reputation, got waxed in the series-deciding game against the Lakers.
Now, Houston enters a bizarre offseason, one in which it is hard to see a clear-cut answer for whatever they need to do, in large part because they really can’t. Look at this.
The amount owed to the double super max players
— Bobby Marks (@BobbyMarks42) September 13, 2020
Goodness gracious. The fact that these two are owed so much is a problem, but the fact that they are two guys on the wrong side of 30 is really concerning. Add in the fact that Houston basically gave up all its draft capital to acquire Westbrook, and they built a team in a very specific way that is oftentimes dependent on finding diamonds in the rough who fit their system, and it’s hard to find a path out. This is before we consider that their head coach, Mike D’Antoni, is a free agent, and while general manager Daryl Morey said he wants to bring him back, who knows how this series will impact that.
There’s a famous Draymond Green quote about how some guys are 82 game players, while others are 16 game players. It’s an interesting one, and it’s one I found myself thinking about a lot during this series. It is possible that the Rockets have a bunch of outstanding 82 game players, but when you need to win 16 games to get a ring, trusting them seems like a risky proposition. Maybe there’s a way out of this that does not involve blowing this experiment all the way up, but it does feel like something needs to change in Houston, even if there aren’t a whole lot of things they can really do that aren’t drastic.