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Lakers vs. Rockets Game 3 Preview: Does Houston have a counterpunch?

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After the Rockets won Game 1, the Lakers responded with adjustments in Game 2. Will Houston be able to do much differently in Game 3, given that they’re mainly built to play one way?

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Houston Rockets v Los Angeles Lakers - Game Two Photo by Jim Poorten/NBAE via Getty Images

In their first two series in the 2020 NBA playoffs, the Lakers have lost Game 1 both times. In the first round, after falling in a narrow defeat against the Portland Trail Blazers, they made just about every adjustment one would want them to make, and went on to easily win the series. The Western Conference Semifinals — and the Houston Rockets — are a different animal, but in Game 2, the Lakers got off to a good start on making this a playoff trend.

After losing to the Rockets in Game 1, LeBron James compared this Houston team’s speed to that of the “Greatest Show on Turf” version of the Rams, and said he usually needed a game to adjust to that type of quickness. In Game 2, he and his team looked to have made the adjustment, doing a better job of pass placement to limit turnovers, and moving without the ball to poke hole’s in Houston’s defense.

“We showed film and talked about their speed and their gambling defense,” Lakers head coach Frank Vogel said after the win. “It took us a little while to make sure we’re getting used to it. The passes that we normally get in a regular season against a normal, traditional defense are a little bit different against a switching, gambling defense. It takes a little time to just get a feel for that. I thought we did a better job in this game than we did in game one.”

The Lakers also did an excellent job switching, rotating, trapping and pressuring the Rockets on the other end, as well as playing off of Russell Westbrook to bait him into bad shots and careless turnovers. James said that he felt he and his teammates had adjusted to how fast the Rockets’ hands were on defense, and how physical they are while playing undersized, as well as how much scrambling they have to do to cover their shooters on the other end.

Houston Rockets v Los Angeles Lakers - Game Two
The Lakers were all over the Rockets for most of Game 2.
Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

The stats back up his assertions, as the Lakers played at a slower pace and turned the ball over a lower percentage of the time in Game 2 than they did in Game 1, albeit just so. They also just plain shot much better from the field (56.6%) and from three (44.4%) than they did in the first game of the series (42.2% and 28.9%, respectively).

On defense, the Lakers may have allowed 41 points in the third quarter, but they only let Houston score 68 in the other three quarters combined. Some of that was the aforementioned improved rotations and strategy, but the Lakers also did a much better job boxing out to make sure they got a higher percentage of rebounds to end possessions as well, which was a key for the team going into the game.

“They’re small, scrappy guys. They’re just gonna scrap. We’ve got to scrap with them,” said Lakers forward Markieff Morris after Game 2, saying that a point of emphasis for the Lakers was watching the Rockets’ corner shooters to make sure someone boxed them out when a shot went up.

“We did that late in the game, and we’ve got to continue to do things like that. It’s the small things that are going to win this series,” Morris said.

Those are all good adjustments from the Lakers, and they aren’t the only ones they made. The real question is what the Rockets can do to counter them. Houston was built to play one way, and that’s small. They don’t have a functional way to go big to deal with the Lakers’ size, even if that were something Mike D’Antoni wanted to do.

(Editor’s Note: There is zero chance that’s what Mike D’Antoni wants to do, as evidenced by his entire coaching career)

Now, the Rockets can obviously make schematic adjustments in the way they play. And as we saw in the third quarter of Game 2, their shooters are capable of getting as hot as Southern California this weekend from deep. But lineup-wise, there isn’t much they can do other than just play and shoot better.

Will that, in conjunction with whatever changes they make be enough to swing the series back in their direction? Or have the Lakers figured out another game plan that works on a playoff opponent that gave them problems off the bat? We’ll get some answers when Game 3 tips off on Tuesday.

Notes and Updates

  • On the injury front, Dion Waiters (sore left groin) is being listed as doubtful to play in Game 3. JaVale McGee (sprained left ankle) is listed as questionable, but the current word is that he will play. For the first time in several games, Rajon Rondo is not on the injury report, but LeBron James (sore right groin) and Anthony Davis (finger sprain) are once again being listed as probable, as they have been all postseason. The Rockets’ injury report is empty.
  • The NBA retroactively gave Anthony Davis a flagrant foul for Sunday’s game after the Rockets whined about him on Twitter.
  • Here is what our sister site, The Dream Shake, is thinking about for the Rockets going into Game 3.

Much of the attention has gone to Russell Westbrook’s poor play in Game 2, and that’s fair. The Brodie was bad. That’s part of the Russ Experience, and it’s not ending any time soon. What Houston cannot allow is another contest where Rajon Rondo decimates their bench to the tune of a +/- of +28. Conversely, Houston cannot get a -26 from Jeff Green, who’s been fabulous during his tenure with the Rockets. Worse, Austin Rivers was a -18 in seven minutes.

But there are some reasons for hope for Houston. Regression seems likely to occur in those scenarios. Furthermore, the Lakers are unlikely to shoot 57% from the field or 44% from deep three more times in the series. Scott Foster won’t get assigned to this series more than one or two more times (right?). Finally, I’m enjoying James Harden playing against defenders that aren’t Lu Dort. The Beard had a quietly efficient night in Game 2, and is trending upward. Eric Gordon has also looked great.

The Lakers and Rockets will play Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals tomorrow, Tuesday, Sept. 8 at 6:00 p.m. PT. It will be broadcast on TNT. You can also sign up to watch it on fuboTV here.

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.