Lakers-Rockets: I'm Told the Series Will Start Someday

[Ed. Note: I asked DexterFishmore to give us some Tempo-Free Boxscore Breakdown numbers heading into this series, expecting something similar to what he's written after several of our first round games. What I got was a full-blown preview, with a heavy focus on advanced metrics. Once you read it, you'll understand why I immediately brought him on as a full-blown author and gave him the green light. Enjoy.]

The NBA playoffs can warp one's sense of time.  When the game clock in Boston read 00:00 tonight, the Celtics and Bulls having finally wrapped their Russian novel of a playoff series, I'd developed the vague sense that those teams had played four or five complete games since the Lakers finished disposing of the Jazz.  That didn't seem entirely plausible, but then again, plausibility is often a casualty of TV-driven playoff scheduling, which in the Lakers' case will have given them a full week off before the second round enters our lives.

I've used that time in part to reminisce fondly about historic postseason battles between Phil Jackson and Rick Adelman and in part to stare at a whole mess of numbers concerning the series that lies before us.  I invite you now to put on your green eyeshades and join me, as we dive into some stats to try to figure out who exactly these Rockets are and how much of a threat they pose to the Lakers.

I. The view from above.

Let's begin with a macro look at the two teams.  Here are some high level, regular season metrics for the Rockets and Lakers; the numbers in parentheses indicate ranking among the NBA's 30 teams in the various categories.

 

  • Won-loss record: Rockets... 53-29 (8th), Lakers... 65-17 (2nd).
  • Pace of play (expressed in average possessions per game): Rockets - 92.7 (19th), Lakers - 96.9 (6th).
  • Points scored per possession: Rockets - 1.05 (16th), Lakers - 1.10 (3rd).
  • Points allowed per possession: Rockets - 1.01 (4th), Lakers - 1.02 (5th).
  • Net points per possession: Rockets... +0.04 (7th), Lakers... +0.08 (4th).

 

The Rockets have put together a truly fine season, and they belong in the NBA's version of the Elite Eight.  The story of their campaign has been pretty well told.  Already boasting an excellent defense, during the offseason they added another elite perimeter stopper in Ron Artest; Yao Ming, despite an injury-riddled 2008 campaign and a summer spent with the Chinese national team, beat the odds and stayed healthy; Aaron Brooks emerged as a credible point-guard option after Rafer Alston was dealt to Orlando; Shane Battier got some serious love from Michael Lewis and the New York Times; and Tracy McGrady got hurt but nobody cared.

The Rockets' identity is that of a top-level defensive unit, and justifiably so, as they allowed the fourth-fewest points per possession in the NBA this year.  On this same tempo-free basis, however, the Lakers are merely a tick behind, ranking fifth.  This fact is obscured by the difference in pace between the two teams.  While the Rockets are 19th in average possessions per game - not unexpected for a team with a dominant but somewhat immobile center - the Lakers are sixth and average about four more possessions per game.  These extra possessions drive up the Lakers' points allowed per game and foster the mistaken impression that their defense isn't of substantially the same caliber as Houston's.

Where there's a real gap between the teams is on offense.  In per-possession terms, the Rockets sit in the middle of the pack at 16th in the league, while the Lakers are third (behind only Phoenix and Portland).  As was the case with Utah, Houston's major challenge, a daunting one, will be to slow the Laker scoring machine.

II. A closer look at the Rockets on D.

So how does Houston go about its business when the opponent has the ball?  Here are some more detailed defensive numbers from the regular season, with league rank in parentheses, to show how the Rockets keep points off the board.  (Explanations for the metrics I use can be found here.)

 

  • Turnover rate: 14% (28th).
  • Opponents' FTA/FGA: 0.257 (2nd).
  • Effective field goal percentage allowed: 48% (4th).
  • True shooting percentage allowed: 52% (3rd).
  • Defensive rebounding percentage: 75% (4th).

 

I must say, that's some good stuff.  The Rockets' defense isn't about gambling for steals and forcing turnovers.  They'll generally let you get a shot off, but it's likely to be bad one with a hand in your face.  And you'll only get one, because they clear the defensive boards better than almost anyone.  And they'll do all this without sending you to the line.

The Rockets this year have been especially good at forcing opponents to gun away from outside.  According to the excellent 82games.com, 68% of field goal attempts by Houston opponents this year were jump shots, with those FGAs generating a meager 43% effective field goal percentage.  Yao-phobia in action.

In their first-round series against Portland, the Rockets faced on offense that during the regular season was every bit as efficient as the Lakers', and they prevailed in six games without home-court advantage.  Here, to show how Houston got it done, are the tempo-free numbers from that series:

 

  • Average possessions per game: 84.
  • Turnover rate: Rockets - 15%, Blazers - 14%.
  • FTA/FGA: Rockets - 0.29, Blazers - 0.26.
  • Effective field goal percentage: Rockets - 52%, Blazers - 48%.
  • True shooting percentage: Rockets - 56%, Blazers - 52%.
  • Offensive rebounding rate: Rockets - 27%, Blazers - 24%.
  • Defensive rebounding rate: Rockets - 76%, Blazers - 73%.
  • Points per possession: Rockets - 1.11, Blazers - 1.04.

 

On the whole, these line up quite nicely with the season-long profile of the Houston D.  Not a lot of forced turnovers, but few fouls, good work forcing shooters to miss, and the usual dominance on the defensive glass.  And in fact, there actually were quite a few turnovers forced by the Rockets in their four wins.  In Games One, Three, Four and Six of the series, Portland's turnover rates were 11%, 16%, 16% and 18%.  Game One was the outlier, when the Rockets' offense detonated to the tune of 1.35 points per possession; in the other three wins, the formula was to combine their usual stout D with a smattering of additional turnovers.  Au revoir, Portland.

III. But the rules say you have to play offense, too.

They do indeed, and the picture here isn't nearly as scary.  Let's go right to the numbers as they concern the Houston offensive attack.

 

  • Turnover rate: 16% (20th).
  • FTA/FGA: 0.297 (20th).
  • Effective field goal percentage: 50% (13th).
  • True shooting percentage: 55% (12th).
  • Offensive rebounding percentage: 26% (17th).

 

Yeah, that's what a middle-of-the-pack offense looks like.  You worry about Yao, of course; Artest has stretches when he can make the three-ball drop; and Luis Scola can be very efficient offensive player; but in the advanced playoff rounds you really need some weapons-grade scorers, and that's where this Houston roster falls short. Battier in particular tends to be a nonentity when the Rockets have the ball.

This team did put up 1.11 points per possession against the Blazers, of course, but that number is heavily influenced by their lightning-strike Game One outburst, a performance so out of character for this team that I'm inclined not to worry about it overmuch.  Take out that game and the Rockets' scoring output for the series dips to 1.06 points per possession, almost exactly equal to their regular season production.

IV. The Lakers have played these guys before, right?

Right - four times actually, winning all four.  Here are the composite numbers from the regular season series:

 

  • Average possessions per game: 91.
  • Turnover rate: Lakers - 13%, Rockets - 21%.
  • FTA/FGA: Lakers - 0.27, Rockets - 0.20.
  • Effective field goal percentage: Lakers - 52%, Rockets - 50%.
  • True shooting percentage: Lakers - 55%, Rockets - 52%.
  • Offensive rebounding rate: Lakers - 31%, Rockets - 29%.
  • Defensive rebounding rate: Lakers - 71%, Rockets - 69%.
  • Points per possession: Lakers - 1.13, Rockets - 0.99.

 

(Personnel notes: The first game was in November, when the Rockets still had McGrady and Alston, and before the Bynum injury.  The second game was in January; Alston was still around but McGrady was out, as was Jordan Farmar.  The third game was in March and the fourth in April, both occurring after the Alston trade and Bynum injury.  Shannon Brown had arrived by the third game but got DNP'd in both it and the fourth game.)

The Lakers beat the Rockets this year just about every way one team can beat another.  There were close games and routs, offensive shootouts and defensive struggles.  For the most part, Houston kept the games at its preferred pace, but it didn't matter.  When the Houston O broke out in January for 1.15 PPP, the Lakers churned out 1.21 PPP on the strength of a miniscule 8% turnover rate.  In the last two games, when the Houston D kept a lid on the Laker attack, their offense could barely scratch a point per possession.

Throughout the season series, the Lakers excelled especially at something that the Rockets don't usually allow: offensive rebounding.  Los Angeles killed on the glass, grabbing 31% of their misses against one of the best defensive rebounding teams in the league.

Past results don't guarantee future performance, of course.  This is just a four-game sample, and the numbers aren't destiny.  But there's a fair amount of evidence here to suggest that the Lakers have the Rockets figured out.

V. OK, great. What in particular should I be looking for?

Hey, I'm not going to tell you how to live your life, but here are a few things that I'll have my eye on come Monday night.

A. Will the Lakers keep fouling?

The Lakers weren't an especially foul-prone team in the regular season, ranking 18th in the league in opponents' FTA/FGA at 0.299.  That number spiked to 0.373, however, against Utah.  The Rockets aren't a team that usually draws a lot of fouls (20th in the league in FTA/FGA at 0.292), but if you do put them on the line they'll make you regret it, as they connected on 80.5% of their free throw attempts during the regular season, good for fifth in the league.  As a matter of course, the Jazz do a great job of getting to the line, so I'm hopeful that the Lakers' fouling ways were the result of that particular matchup and not an ongoing trend.

B. Will Ariza and Brown fall back to earth?

In the first-round series between Houston and Portland, Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge played well while the Blazers' secondary options all kind of stunk.  I admittedly didn't see enough of that series (thanks, NBA TV!) to know whether this resulted from conscious tactical decisions by Adelman - or alternatively, whether that's just how the shots fell (or didn't).  In any case, I'll be very interested to see whether a similar fate befalls the Lakers' supporting players - Trevor Ariza and Shannon Brown in particular.  They combined to hit 17 of 27 three-point attempts against Utah, and while there's no way that keeps up, some continued sharpshooting from those two would go a long way toward bringing this series to an early, favorable conclusion.

C. How will Kobe fare against Artest and Battier?

This will be fun to watch.  Artest and Battier are two of the most skilled and intelligent perimeter defenders in the league, and the tactical moves and countermoves between themselves and Kobe should be a delight for all basketball aficionados, regardless of rooting interest.  During the regular season contests, Kobe had one poor shooting performance against these guys (going 13 for 32 in January) but otherwise hung up some stellar lines, including a dominant outing (37 points, 6 assists, 5 rebounds, 4 steals and 2 blocks) at the Toyota Center in March.  We can only hope that Ron-Ron didn't learn his lesson about poking the Mamba.

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