The Rockets have gone all in on their micro-ball starting lineup, not starting a single player over 6’7. It’s led some to speculate that the Lakers — who start two seven-footers in Anthony Davis and JaVale McGee — may have to adjust their own first-unit in order to keep up.
But while the Lakers did go small in their last matchup against the Rockets in the bubble, benching McGee and starting Davis at center, that was an experimentation-heavy game that the Lakers played without LeBron James. After practice on Thursday, Vogel was unwilling to confirm or deny if he’d shift his starters again.
“We’ll see tomorrow night. I’m not going to reveal my hand. We have the ability to play with Anthony at the five, or with two big guys out there,” Vogel said. “We played a blend of both in every game all year, and we’ll see how the series plays out.”
Whether or not the Lakers could play big — or if they’d be forced to play Davis significant minutes at center despite his preference to play mostly the four — was a topic of conversation all year, and especially in the lead-up to the playoffs. We’ve seen Vogel do so as a quick adjustment at halftime when he sees something he doesn’t like, too, most famously in the second game of the season.
But for most of the year, the Lakers had success with Davis and McGee as their starters. So far in the playoffs, they haven’t felt the need to change what got them here. And while I wasn’t able to get a question to Davis about whether or not he’d be all right with such a change if it became necessary, he did answer another reporter’s question by saying that forcing the Rockets to adjust to the way the Lakers play was “definitely the key” to this matchup.
“They bring a different dynamic to the game,” Davis said. “Switching everything and playing the way they play, shooting over the top and having five out, where we have two bigs who are used to playing against centers and not guarding the perimeter. It’s going to be different for us, but at the same time we want to make them adjust to us, the same way they try to force us to adjust to them by playing small ball. We have to make sure we dominate them on the offensive glass and also make them adjust to our size.”
Davis, Vogel, and the rest of the team may have already tipped their hand on what they’ll do, however. Vogel saying that the Lakers will see how the series plays out. Davis talking at length about forcing the Rockets to adjust to the way they play. Danny Green talking about the same thing using similar terms on his podcast. The way everyone is speaking in lock step implies that this team is either playing extreme mind games to try and surprise the Rockets, or more likely, that they actually see playing big as an advantage. At the very least, Davis certainly seems to think it is, and the guy that starts at center so that Davis doesn’t have to sees things the same way.
“I feel like we have a good enough team to force teams to go big. I always hated that notion that just because of the Warriors and how they play, everybody in the league feels like they have to go small,” McGee said during a recent episode of “Inside the Green Room” that he appeared on. “In my mind, I’m like ‘why can’t we be the team that people have to go big for?’ So I feel like we’re that good that we can make that adjustment, and make other teams adjust to us.”
There is evidence to suggest that going that route isn’t a terrible idea. For one, the Lakers had the best record in the Western Conference while playing that way. They have also gotten smarter about how they attack smaller players when Davis is being guarded by them, getting him the ball on the move instead of just using brute force to hammer the ball to him in post ups with his back to the basket. And those are far from the only arguments for staying big.
My Rockets-Lakers pre-series work is complete!— Cranjis McBasketball (@Tim_NBA) September 3, 2020
: Read my tactical preview here: https://t.co/EbouuSAa0u
️: Watch why LA playing big is the way to go here: https://t.co/yJTHzJzmcD
️: Watch how LA will attack Houston's switchy and small defense here: https://t.co/vGN1rvwn2g
Reminder: AD was in the 82nd percentile in drawing fouls posting up among the 36 players with 100+ post up scoring possessions this season.— Cranjis McBasketball (@Tim_NBA) September 3, 2020
Second reminder: PJ Tucker has the highest rate of his minutes playing in foul trouble this season.
Here's a diagram of what that has looked like. Not every time, but quite often.— Cranjis McBasketball (@Tim_NBA) September 3, 2020
If LA gets cutting & screening off-ball, they can go small and unpack the paint. But on the year & R1 they've faced this challenge and not made that adjustment, so I feel more confident in going big. pic.twitter.com/ayMXLYhFYQ
But whether the Lakers ultimately play big or small, LeBron made it clear that he doesn’t think it will be the deciding factor in the series, and seemed to take exception to the idea that the way Houston plays is some unprecedented challenge.
“It’s five guys vs. five guys. It’s basketball. It’s not the first time I’ve went against five guys that shoot threes in my basketball life. I’ve gone against all different types of lineups since I started playing basketball when I was nine years old. There’s nothing strange about it. It is what it is,” James said. “We have to prepare for it and be great every night in order to win. And if we’re not we’ll lose. It’s that simple.”