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Three things to watch for when the Lakers take on the Rockets

The series between the Lakers and Rockets will have a few x-factors to look out for. We broke down three of them.

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Houston Rockets v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

When the Los Angeles Lakers begin their series against the Houston Rockets on Friday to kick off the second round of the NBA playoffs, a lot of the focus will be on the star power between the two teams. On LeBron James and Anthony Davis vs. James Harden and Russell Westbrook.

Those players will be important to the outcome of the series, no doubt. In fact, their play might be the single most important thing, given how much both rosters rely on their best players to be the engines of everything they do offensively.

With that noted, they also won’t be the only things to watch for, even if most of the ink spilled on this series will focus on them. Because of that, we wanted to take a look at three smaller — but still important — things that could tilt the outcome of this matchup in one way or another.

So without further ado, let’s dig in.

The Lakers’ math problem

Before anyone gets upset about the subhead above, I should be clear: I am still picking the Lakers to win this series (more on that in a bit). This is just highlighting one potential issue I could see that might make it more difficult for them to do so, or be the reason they drop a game or two.

You see, three is greater than two. That may seem obvious, but it’s a fundamental tenet of basketball arithmetic that could haunt the Lakers at times against the Rockets because of the disparity in the ways these two teams score.

During the playoffs so far, no team has gotten a higher percentage of their points off of 2-point baskets (52.6% of their scoring) than the Lakers. And no team has done more of their scoring from three in the postseason (49.7%) than the Rockets. That is a continuation (and improvement) of a regular season trend for Houston, and while the Lakers didn’t rank first in percentage of points from 2-point range in the regular season, they actually did more of their scoring from there (55.2%) before the playoffs.

This could be an issue for Los Angeles if Houston gets hot from three in any of these games. So far, both teams have shot around the same percentage from three during the playoffs — 35.9% for Houston, 34.3% for the Lakers — but Houston is taking a postseason-leading 51 threes per game so far, while the Lakers took 35 a game during their five-game gentleman’s sweep over Portland. Houston has a game where they hit 25-30 of their threes instead of the 18.3 they’ve averaged so far, it could be hard for L.A. to catch up while scoring mostly baskets that are worth a point less.

Houston Rockets v Oklahoma City Thunder - Game Three
Keeping James Harden off the 3-point (and free-throw) line is easier said than done, but the Lakers are going to have to limit his attempts a bit to win this series.
Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

The good news is that the Lakers have already shown that they can limit a team’s threes a bit when allowed to lock in on a single opponent. The Trail Blazers were taking 34.1 threes per game during the regular season, and the Lakers were able to pressure their shooters off the line into the mid-range a bit, cutting their attempts from deep to 30.6 per game during the playoffs. That may not seem like a lot, but every little bit helps, and the way they played defense likely made the threes that Portland took even tougher.

Can they do the same against the Rockets? They’ll have to — in addition to possibly upping their own attempts from deep a bit — because otherwise they’ll be playing not just against the Rockets, but math itself.

David vs. Goliath

As much as we all like to joke about the Lakers’ being underdogs in the playoffs because of how fashionable it’s been to pick against them this season, this is not a joke about the plucky, small-business Lakers trying to take on big, bad billionaire Tilman Fertitta ( as hilarious as that would be). Rather, it’s an a reference to how big the Lakers (Goliath) like to play, in comparison to Houston’s David-esque lineups of lilliputian giant slayers.

Those lineups have been an issue for the Lakers at points this year, although how much they have been so might be being overstated a bit. The Lakers won their first game against the Rockets this season before they fully committed to micro-ball, which probably has to be thrown out, but so do the latter two games, one of which was a narrow Lakers’ loss in which they were the first team to face Houston’s new style (and had no tape or prep time on it) after the trade deadline, and the latter of which LeBron James sat out for as the Lakers took it easy during the seeding round.

But those results notwithstanding, this matchup should be a fascinating clash of styles, a battle both on the court and in the debate forum of basketball philosophy itself. Will the Lakers have to go small more to match up with the Rockets? Or will their big lineups stretch the limits of the Rockets’ center-less lineups, and leave them being the ones radioing back to say “Houston, we have a problem” as the second round goes along?

“Obviously we don’t want to tip our hand about what our plan would be against either opponent,” said Lakers head coach Frank Vogel when asked about facing a team that plays more small-ball than the Blazers did at practice on Monday, before their second-round opponent had been decided.

“But what I love about what we did this year was we built in the flexibility to play both styles,” Vogel continued. “We play some big lineups, and some small lineups as part of our normal rotation. Part of what we do. So if we were to go small for higher volumes, it’s still within who the Lakers are this season. So we’re prepared to do both, to be flexible and counter any attack that we see.”

Vogel also wasn’t concerned about the difficulty of having to tell guys on the team they weren’t playing if the Lakers had to change their attack.

“A lineup change that is going to stick in the regular season is harder,” Vogel said. “All of our guys are experienced enough to know that when the playoffs come around, you do anything you can to beat that opponent. And one series may be very different from the last one with regards to who’s playing, and I feel like those conversations in the playoffs are easier because of that dynamic and because of the experience we have with our group.”

Still, there is reason to believe that the Lakers may not have to alter the lineups they play to match up with Houston as drastically as some have theorized. Friend of the site and calculator pretending to be a human being Cranjis McBasketball of The BBall Index broke down why in his excellent series preview.

AD will likely be guarded often by PJ Tucker, who I’m not scared of. Tucker’s defensive efficiency in the post, per Second Spectrum data from a source, had him in only the 58th percentile. Covington was 54th percentile. Above average, but not the caliber of defense that worries me as long as LA can keep the floor spaced.

As I covered in my video, here are AD’s post efficiencies against Houston this season based on lineup size for LA:

Small lineup: 0.85 PPP

Big Lineup: 1.0 PPP

There is also the argument that the Lakers might be able to get out-quicked for a game or two by the Rockets, but that over the course of a series, they’re big, bruising lineups may wear down the legs of a Houston team that already is coming off of a tough, seven-game series from just two days before, while the Lakers have had a week to rest up.

There’s always the possibility that L.A. will have to go small at times to match up if Houston really gets rolling, but this also might be an instance where a quote from the great philosopher Rorschach is particularly relevant as it pertains to the Lakers’ largeness, and the toll it could take for smaller players over multiple games.

We’ll see if that’s how things play out.

Deja Vu

I know it’s a long time ago, but let’s relax for a second, and try to think back to nearly two weeks before now, when the Lakers were getting set to play the Portland Trail Blazers. Do you remember the discourse? It went something like this.

The Blazers are a lot better than the typical eighth seed! How are the Lakers going to stop Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum? I didn’t like what I saw from them in the seeding round!

The Lakers went on to destroy not just the Blazers, but seemingly their will to win the series, in five games. Fast forward to this week, and we were hearing a lot of, shall we say, similar things.

The Rockets are a lot better than the typical fourth seed! How are the Lakers going to stop Harden and Russ? I didn’t like what I saw from them in the first round!

Throw in some chatter about the Rockets having the best defense in the bubble so far, and you essentially have the conversation heading into this series, albeit with people a little closer to remembering that oh yeah, the Lakers are pretty good.

The Rockets may have the best defense in the bubble so far, allowing just 101.7 points per 100 possessions, but despite how much is made about Houston’s explosive and innovative offense, the Lakers have actually scored more efficiently so far in the playoffs (114.5 points per 100 possessions) than the Rockets have (108.3). Is some of that small sample size and based on their opponent? Absolutely! But so is the Rockets’ success on defense so far, and both should be noted.

With all that said, which trend do you think is more likely: The Rockets continuing to defend better than the 73-win Warriors while facing LeBron James and Anthony Davis? Or the Lakers continuing to score somewhat efficiently? I know which one I think there is a better chance of, but I guess we’re just going to have to watch the series to ultimately see.

These types of posts are never complete without a prediction, so here’s my obligatory guess at how this series goes: The Lakers struggle early with a bit of rust after so much time off, but then they figure out a way to limit something Harden and/or Westbrook do well as a team, while their length and physicality wears the Rockets down as James and Davis start to explode more and more as the series goes along. The Lakers ultimately win in six games.

The Lakers and Rockets kick off the second round on Friday, Sept. 4 at 6:00 p.m. PT on ESPN.

Agree? Disagree? Have something else you’ll be watching for? Let us know in the comments below. 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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