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Lakers vs. Rockets Preview: Is L.A. trying to control its playoff bracket?

Could the Lakers want to play the Thunder more than the Rockets? We may learn a bit more tonight.

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Oklahoma City Thunder v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Update: Never mind, I was wrong and dumb. The Lakers appear to be throwing in the towel agains the Rockets tonight, as LeBron James and Alex Caruso are out, and Frank Vogel is going to opt to experiment with a new starting lineup:

Original story follows.

To understand what the Lakers might be doing right now, we have to go back in time around five months, to about two weeks before the NBA season shut down. L.A. was playing a back-to-back in Memphis against the Grizzlies on a Saturday before flying to New Orleans to take on the Pelicans.

The games were potential first-round playoff previews, with the Lakers playing the two teams who were (at the time) favored to grab the eighth seed in the Western Conference and meet them in the first round. L.A. shockingly got walloped, 105-88, on the first night in Memphis, even though LeBron James and Anthony Davis surprisingly both played despite being listed on the injury report. The team looked completely listless though, even with their two stars, not even showing a remote interest in playing with the necessary energy to win the game.

The very next night, the Lakers looked like a completely different team while dismantling the Pelicans, 122-114. James dropped his 13th triple-double of the season, rumbling for 34 points on 66.7% shooting to go with 10 rebounds, 13 assists and 2 steals.

Now, you may be asking yourself why this is relevant to a preview for a game against the Houston Rockets. Well, the answer is simple, hypothetical straw man: This was the way the Lakers approached things the last time they had a chance to influence their playoff bracket in a back-to-back, and as I joked about last night, it was hard not to get similar vibes from the Thunder game, the start of their first opportunity to do so again.

Neither the Rockets or Thunder are possible first-round playoff matchups like the Pelicans and Grizzlies were, but they could be second-round opponents, depending on if they win their respective first round series. And right now, they are in a tight race for the fifth seed in the West, a chance to get out of the Lakers’ bracket until the Western Conference Finals.

Going into last night, the Thunder were behind the Rockets, but with their win over L.A. (who has already clinched the top seed, and thus could get little out of the game other than a little cardio and the chance to influence their road to the NBA Finals), they are tied at 42-25, with the tiebreaker they hold over Houston putting them in the fifth spot and dropping the Rockets to sixth. If the Lakers beat the Rockets tonight, they’ll knock them one loss back of the Thunder with just four games remaining.

Now, we should acknowledge that the Lakers are struggling, something I wrote extensively about last night. That noted, they did not exactly act like a team desperate to beat the Thunder. James and Davis both led the roster with right around 30 minutes, Dwight Howard sat out, and the Lakers never exactly played with the energy of a team with a ton of desire to win that game. I would say that doesn’t necessarily mean anything, but it also may not not mean anything, either. All I’m saying is if they come out and jump all over the Rockets tonight, we may have some evidence that they’re trying to help Houston into the Clippers’ side of the playoff bracket.

Oklahoma City Thunder v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

And why would the Lakers want to end up facing the winner between the Jazz (the No. 4 seed) and Thunder instead of the Jazz and Rockets. Well for one, the Jazz are playoff frauds who get exposed as such every year, and Davis is the legal guardian of alleged top defensive center Rudy Gobert, to answer that part. But last night’s result notwithstanding, the Rockets would seem to be a bigger threat to the Lakers than the Thunder are, for a few reasons.

One is that the Rockets — in James Harden and Russell Westbrook — have two superstars, something that tilts the math in any potential series more than it does in any single regular season game. More tangibly, they also are one of the few teams that may be able to force the Lakers into going small, and actually have some answers for them when they do so (or at least might be able to get up enough threes that they can tilt the math in their favor, especially if the Lakers keep struggling to shoot).

Does this mean the Lakers are guaranteed to lose to the Rockets, or should be (or are) afraid of them? Of course not. Their last four games aside, the Lakers are an incredible team and a legitimate title contender. The reason to influence their bracket is not because they can’t beat the Rockets, but because it would likely be harder to than beating the Thunder. And in a war of attrition like the playoffs can become, every team usually just wants to take the least-challenging path so that they can save their legs for the toughest teams down the line. And if they can make Paul George and Kawhi Leonard chase Harden and Westbrook around for a few games in the process, hey, why not?

In short, an exhausting series with the go-go Rockets would tax the Lakers right before the Western Conference Finals, as we’ve seen in their games against each other this season. The Lakers are 3-1 against the Thunder, and even beat them without James, Davis and Danny Green once this year. That would likely be another quick series, regardless of how last night went. If they go all out to beat the Rockets tonight after how lackadaisical they were on Wednesday, we’ll be able to take a good guess at which second-round matchup they prefer.

Notes and Updates

  • On the Rockets’ side of things, the team reportedly is expecting Russell Westbrook is sitting out for this one.

The Lakers and Rockets tip off at 6:00 p.m. PT, and the game will be televised locally on Spectrum SportsNet, and nationally on TNT.

For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.

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