From a stylistic and tactical standpoint, this was the matchup everyone wanted to watch. The Lakers and Clippers would have been the storylines, the star power, the in-town rivalries, and the online media receipts so relished by fans, all of which are great. But the Lakers-Rockets series was a battle of ideas as much as it was one of teams and individuals.
In a league that increasingly emphasizes wings and three point shooting, the Rockets play only wings and guards while regularly breaking their own league records for the number of their shots that come from behind the arc. By contrast, the Lakers regularly play two bigs and attack the paint with size and physicality, as their hooping forefathers did. Because of such dramatic stylistic differences, this series was billed a significant test for the analytically-driven small-ball revolution of the past decade.
Weirdly, it both passed and failed that test. The Rockets lost the series in convincing fashion, overwhelmed physically and outworked on defense. The extreme difficulty of overcoming a size disadvantage that severe was on full display. P.J. Tucker‘s impressive strength did not save him from Anthony Davis. By the end of the series, the physicality deficit (and the thinning of their rotation by the suspension of Danuel House, Jr.) had left Houston’s players frustrated and visibly exhausted.
Yet for all that, it was a concession to the logic of small-ball from Frank Vogel that unlocked the Lakers’ dominance.
After the series, Frank Vogel pointed out the luxury of having two full practice days to prepare for the Conference Finals, as opposed to only one full day for the Rockets. That lack of preparation was apparent in Game 1, when the Lakers showed up with an astonishingly normal game-plan. As they have all year, the lineups featuring Rajon Rondo and two bigs suffered from an absence of spacing offensively and an inability to run people off the three point line defensively. Houston exploited those flaws, particularly during the decisive fourth-quarter stretch when they took a double-digit lead.
Houston’s ability to pack the paint when the Lakers played two non-shooters discouraged both LeBron James and Rondo from either attacking off the dribble or attempting lob passes. The presence of so many nearby defenders provided Houston with the ability to quickly double any entry pass to the low post, and the Rockets created several turnovers by anticipating the entry pass and bringing the second defender early to steal it.
If they aren’t able to either bully in the post or be on the receiving end of a lob, JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard have little to contribute offensively. Defensively, when the Lakers played two bigs, the Rockets were able to frequently get them both out of the paint. With one occupied guarding Tucker in the corner, James Harden would simply call whoever the second big was guarding to set a screen for him. Once again, Houston manipulated the floor to negate the advantages of size, which as a small team they have a lot of experience doing.
Vogel’s key adjustments unfolded throughout Game 2. McGee again started, but played only 8 minutes, none of them in the second half. Howard did not see the floor, and would not again until 5 minutes of garbage time at the end of Game 5. The primary recipient of their minutes was Markieff Morris, who saw his minutes jump from 9 in Game 1 to the mid-20s for the remainder of the series, and performed magnificently.
While smaller than McGee and Howard, Morris remains large at 6’8″ and is both strong and relatively quick on his feet. He is also a competent three-point shooter (career 34.5%). By playing with Rondo initiating the offense and spacing at the other 4 positions, the Lakers created the necessary room for their veteran point guard to do what he does best, which is attack and distribute. The lobs began to flow.
Vogel also innovated in Game 2 by playing more zone defenses, particularly 3-2 and Box-and-One. Doing so permitted him to deter Harden from attacking the rim too frequently by keeping multiple defenders near it. At the same time, it prevented Rondo from being hunted on screens. Zones are famous for being vulnerable to shooters, but with a non-shooter in Russell Westbrook off the ball, the Rockets weren’t able to stretch the zone enough to create space at the rim.
The combination of the Lakers going smaller with Morris and playing significant minutes of zone defense was a body blow from which the Rockets would not recover. In the first two games, when the Lakers played the highest proportion of man-to-man defense, they allowed Houston to take 39 and 53 three-point shots. As they shifted to zone, they were able to run shooters off the line so effectively that the Rockets would only attempt 30 in each of the next two games.
The Harden drive-and-kick, the engine of Houston’s offense, was sharply limited by his reluctance to attack a clogged lane and Westbrook’s inability to knock down open threes. When players other than Harden needed to make plays late in the clock, the Rockets lack of creating depth and the absence of House showed.
By Game 5, the Rockets were down 3-1, tired, and out of solutions. That game never felt competitive. It is tantalizing to imagine this series with Chris Paul in place of Westbrook, as Paul’s reliable three point shot and late-clock creation ability are precisely the things the Rockets needed most from his position.
As it is, the series has hardly settled the big vs small debate in the NBA. Partisans of the Houston approach will point out that what did them in was taking too few threes, not too many. After all, how many teams have a 6’10” big to play against them who, like Anthony Davis, are capable of defending 5 positions and scoring at 3 levels?
Ultimately it is Davis who is the key ingredient in the Lakers’ versatility. They can get most of the spacing of small-ball without entirely sacrificing rim protection, and they are able to do that because of Davis’ generational talents. Davis, vast production from James, and excellent defensive effort from the entire team ultimately overwhelmed the Rockets. The Lakers now know their next opponent will be the Denver Nuggets. The next chess match is about to begin.
Cover image credit: The Athletic
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