Early in the fourth quarter of Game 1, as a tenacious Houston defense gave the Laker offense fits, LeBron James turned to his coach and succinctly summarized the issue.
After the Rockets went on to win that game in convincing fashion, it was obvious that big changes would have to be made on both ends for the Lakers to take the series. Frank Vogel responded and, while there remains plenty of room for improvement, his response and excellent play from his stars proved enough to take Game 2.
Aside from short stretches at the beginning of each half, Vogel chose not to play with his larger lineups. JaVale McGee got only 8 minutes, and Dwight Howard did not see the floor. Their normal minutes were spread generally across the remainder of the Laker bench unit.
It is not coincidental that the choice to go smaller facilitated Rajon Rondo playing much better than he had in Game 1. With two-big lineups, having a guard like Rondo who doesn’t have to be feared as a shooter negates the spacing created by having a lob threat.
Notice that in the above photo all 5 Rockets can camp in the paint without concern. Russell Westbrook can recover to guard Kyle Kuzma (not pictured, in the near corner) if James should try to kick it out. Rondo need not be respected as a shooter, so there are two Rockets guarding James on the drive and three in position near the rim. This possession ended in a James turnover.
By playing Rondo with hyper-small lineups, Vogel both stretches the Houston defense and gives Rondo more shooting options to hit out of the screen and roll or in transition, which is where he is at his best. It would still be preferable to play Rondo less and play big more, but this particular adjustment puts Rondo in a position to better succeed, if Vogel is determined to play him.
The Lakers were much better in Game 2 about attacking the Rocket defense from the high post or off the dribble, rather than trying to take advantage of size mismatches with deep post-ups. That defense is designed to chase the ball around the perimeter and double quickly in the post, which suits their smaller personnel. If Houston can’t pack the paint, they struggle defending the drive.
Defensively, the Lakers’ smallness hurt them, especially in the third quarter when Houston buried them under a barrage of three pointers. When the Lakers have only one viable rim protector on the floor, it allows the Rockets to hide that big by putting their “center” in the weak side corner. Doing so creates more space for James Harden to get to the rim, while the big sprinting to contest his shot leaves a corner shooter wide open for him to find.
Vogel compensated for that weakness somewhat by weaving a 3-2 zone into the defensive game plan, to keep two people near the basket at all times. That can be only a partial and occasional solution, however, because the corner remains a weakness in that scheme as well.
When the Lakers play with two bigs, however, Harden is far less likely to make the decision to go to the basket in isolation, and far more likely to take a difficult jumper or step-back three. The Rocket offense is at its worst when he takes these shots at a high volume, rather than driving to the rim and creating open shots for their terrifying array of shooters.
Going into Game 3, it would be nice to see Rondo’s minutes reduced closer to 20, with his minutes coming exclusively in small lineups, ideally without Harden on the floor. When Harden is playing, they would do better to mirror his minutes with bigger lineups to deter him from attacking the basket.
Overall, Vogel did a good job smoothing the roughest edges from the Lakers’ Game 1 plan, but there is more to be done. The Rockets are a dangerous team and Mike D’Antoni is a crafty coach who finally has free rein to do as he pleases with the players he wants. Vogel will need to stay a step ahead of him throughout the remainder of the series.
Cover image credit: Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press.
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