Lakers-Rockets Series Preview: The X-Factor, key matchup, and prediction

This is a battle of ideologies. “Small ball” vs. “Bully ball.”

The Lakers’ starting point guard, LeBron James, is four inches taller than the Rockets’ starting center, P.J. Tucker. Nobody in Houston’s rotation stands above 6-foot-8. Five players in the Lakers’ rotation stand 6-9 or above.

The Rockets jacked 45.3 3-pointers per game this season, nearly breaking their own NBA record. They chucked 51 on average in their seven first-round games against Oklahoma City. The Lakers topped out at 39 attempts in the Portland series. They never took more than 45 in any regular-season game.

The Lakers had the sixth-best rebounding rate in the NBA this season. The Rockets had the second worst.

The Lakers led the league in blocked shots and made 67 percent of their NBA-high 34.4 attempts per game within five feet, second highest among any team this decade. Houston, without a true rim protector, was the fifth-worst defense in that pocket of the floor.

Weaknesses are meeting strengths. Styles are clashing. Aging stars with fading title windows populate both sidelines. Legacies will be dictated by the outcome of the series.

Let’s dive into it.

Which Westbrook Shows Up?

There have been two Russell Westbrook’s this season: the one before the trade deadline, and after the trade deadline.

Houston made the seismic pre-deadline decision to trade away its starting center, Clint Capela, and acquire Robert Covington, a reliable 3-and-D wing who perfectly fits the Rockets’ style.

General Manager Daryl Morey stripped the roster of its (useful) centers and power forward and coach Mike D’Antoni is currently piloting the most ambitious small-ball experiment in league history.

A glaring outcome of that transaction was the improved play of Westbrook. Without Capela clogging the paint, Westbrook was unleashed to attack the rim like never before.

Post-Covington trade, the Rockets’ first game was in Staples Center against the Lakers, which was the first huge test for the ultra small ball experiment. The Rockets silenced doubters as they won the game, thanks to Russell Westbrook’s pit bull style of play.

His relentless attack gave the Lakers fits all night.

He scored 41 points on 17-of-28 shooting. Seven of those 17 buckets came with Anthony Davis guarding him. Yep. Without an opposing big, Frank Vogel opted to use Davis on Westbrook for a chunk of the game. It was an interesting tactic, as they hoped Davis could force Westbrook into taking jumpers, but it wasn’t the case. Westbrook blew past Davis as he appeared uncomfortable with the defensive assignment.

The Rockets need that Westbrook if they’re going to have a chance in this series.

But is that the Westbrook that will show in the playoffs?

Westbrook at his best is a different animal, even in the playoffs. He’s dominated the Tony Parker-era Spurs and Chris Paul-era Clippers in a playoff series before, toppling title contenders.

But at his worst, there may not be a star more destructive to his own team’s chances.

Westbrook has a decade-long playoff catalog full of examples, but we only have to go back a few days. The Thunder shouldn’t have taken the Rockets to seven games. Houston probably should’ve won in five, but definitely should’ve won in six.

Westbrook wasn’t at fault for the 2-2 series tie. He missed the first four games with a quad injury. But upon return, he stunk, shooting 3-of-13 in Game 5 and committing seven turnovers, a crunch-time airball and a few defensive blunders to hand the Thunder a Game 6 win.

The greatest argument for a reenergized Rockets team presenting a fatal threat to the Lakers is the theory that Westbrook will be the dominant version of himself, not the destructive version.

Whichever Westbrook shows up for this series will determine if we have a long competitive series or a quick swift Lakers victory.

Will the Lakers be proactive or reactive?

This is true in most series, but even more so in this matchup. The Lakers and Rockets are polar opposites. Houston lives and dies with the 3 point shot. Los Angeles thrives in the paint and on the glass.

So how will the Lakers, in particular Frank Vogel attack this series?

Top seeds typically don’t prefer to make the first chess move. If it’s worked all season, if it’s led you to the conference’s best record, trot out the Game 1 lineup and strategy that’s delivered you to the moment, even if it doesn’t fit the matchup.

Don’t use your wild card until you’re forced into it. If you play it too early, Steve Kerr has said, you risk a veteran locker room viewing it as a panic decision.

Vogel’s coaching personality feels similar to Kerr’s. He started Kyle Kuzma in McGee’s place against the Rockets in an Orlando seeding game, but that was a meaningless night. Westbrook and LeBron didn’t play and the Lakers had already clinched. So that isn’t a good game to look back on to see how the Lakers will attack the series.

I’d be shocked if he didn’t stick with his typical starters in Game 1 against Houston and only adjust if the Lakers fall down in the series.

Davis should dominate this matchup. P.J. Tucker, Robert Covington, Daniel House, hell even James Harden will get chances at slowing down Davis. But they all have one thing in common, BBQ chicken.

They’re too small to handle Davis over the course of a 7 game series. Davis will have a parade of lobs, driving dunks and lays, and easy put-backs, just like against Portland but with perhaps even less resistance.

Go back to that February game. Davis scored 32 points on an easy, efficient 14-of-21 shooting, with 11 of those makes at the rim because Houston is about as ill-equipped as any contender at forcing him into jumpers.

Houston’s rebuttal would be the scoreboard. Davis got his numbers, but the Rockets won that night.

As we talk about being proactive or reactive, Vogel does have to look at this matchup an d what benefits his team best.

Davis could find it easier to dominate (and the Lakers a smoother path to a series win) if he’s the lone big on the floor for most of his minutes. It’s a little like Westbrook, who prefers an unclogged lane when doing his interior work. If the Lakers spread the floor around Davis with Kuzma instead of JaVale or Dwight sitting in the dunker spot, Davis will have more area and ability to drop 40 and 15 nights on the Rockets’ heads loudly and repeatedly.

Kuzma’s effectiveness is the key for the Lakers this series. Vogel has to play Kuzma 25 to 30 minutes, at least, and very well will be forced to put him in the starting lineup at some point in the series and live with the results.

Kuzma’s offense will need to improve from his round one production where he struggled making only 18 of 50 shots and 7 of 23 from deep. But his defense might be even more important this series.

Harden is a nightmare to contain and contest without fouling in isolation and Westbrook is a challenge that a blond-haired, less-alert Kuzma struggled to shut off in that February loss.

But Kuzma is a different defender than he was back then. He’s brought an entirely different focus into the bubble, shown in just about every game. Just look at the seeding game against Houston where he had two blocks on Harden.

X-Factor: Does Caruso get the Lu Dort treatment and how does he respond?

Early in their first round series, the Thunder discovered that rookie Luguentz Dort, using his strength, discipline and ability to navigate through screens, was a terrific defensive matchup against Harden, making it necessary for Dort to remain on the floor for 30 minutes per night.

The Rockets, as a counter, tested Dort’s confidence and ability as a shooter, figuring if they baited him into a shooting slump it’d either hinder the Thunder’s offense or force coach Billy Donovan to pull Dort off the floor, freeing Harden.

That became the main strategic storyline of the series, sometimes working in Houston’s direction (Dort went 3-of-16 shooting and 0-of-9 from 3 in a brutal, stubborn Game 5 Thunder loss) and sometimes working in OKC’s favor (Dort hit six 3s and scored 30 stunning Game 7 points, nearly catapulting the Thunder past Houston).

We have the potential to have that same scenario play put this series, but with Alex Caruso playing the role of Dort.

Alex Caruso isn’t the same type of defender as Dort. Dort is bigger and better equipped to guard a bulky scorer like Harden. But Caruso is the Lakers’ defensive pest, who, in the first round, was a key reason the Lakers had an absurd 90.9 defensive rating in his 119 minutes on the floor.

Caruso will get 20-plus important minutes and the Lakers need him to survive offensively in them.

That probably means Caruso will have to hit a few shots since the Rockets have shown they are very willing to back way off the weakest link and dare that questionable shooter to beat them from the outside. Caruso went 3-of-15 from 3 against the Blazers. He was 2-of-13 in the seeding games. He’s a cumulative 5-of-28 from 3 in the bubble.

You know who’s aware of that stat? Mike D’Antoni. Caruso will be delivered a ton of wide-open 3s in this series. So will Caldwell-Pope and Green. Their ability to make them at a semi-decent clip could determine how challenging this second series is for the Lakers.

Key Matchup: LeBron vs Rockets strong wing defenders

Houston defended the Kevin Durant dynasty-era Warriors better than any other playoff opponent, using their stocky power to push the Warriors’ slender scorers off their preferred spots and presuming (correctly) that officials would allow a more physical game in the playoffs.

“They got a lot of middle linebackers on that team,” Kerr said then. “They’re sturdy. And we look like volleyball players. Long and lean.”

Davis and LeBron aren’t built like Durant and Steph Curry. LeBron is built like a NFL tight end, and Davis is much stronger than Durant.

But the Rockets might give LeBron some trouble. The Rockets have a lot of muscle and length on the wing.

Muscle has been tougher for LeBron to solve offensively this season than quicker wings. In his advanced stage, having lost a bit of his first step quickness, LeBron is increasingly relying on his power.

Just think back to how many times he used that hostage dribble against Portland. Here are three examples just from Game 5, where he gets a step ahead of a defender, but instead of bursting to the rim, he uses his body to wall them off and slow them down before advancing ahead. It’s smart stuff, but it’ll just be harder to dislodge Tucker and Covington and even Harden as compared to McCollum and Gary Trent.

I still like the 6’8″ 240lbs LeBron James chances, but it will be something to watch. If the Rockets can hang in there with LeBron, this series could go longer than expected.

Prediction

This series has there potential to be a Lakers sweep, or be a 7 game classic series with either team winning. It all depends on which team imposes its will and style.

But history tells me that the Lakers should handle this series rather quickly.

James Harden and Russell Westbrook have had their playoff demons for a decade now, and they show up like clock work. They’ve already reared their ugly heads in round 1 as Westbrook’s been terrible and Harden only memorable play was the block on Dort. They were lucky to advance.

On the other side we have LeBron James, one of the best post season players the game has ever seen. Oh and Anthony Davis has been quite the playoff performer in his limited opportunities.

I expect the Lakers “bully ball” to out last the Rockets small ball 3 point shooting. It’s in the numbers, the Lakers will capitalize on more 2 point shots than the Rockets do 3 point shots. The Lakers have the more clutch players, and the much better defense. Throw in the huge second chances the Lakers will have because of their size and the Rockets need to be perfect to make this a long series.

I have the Lakers in 5.

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