The Thunder Couldn’t Hurt the Rockets Inside But the Lakers Can

By Andrew Lawlor

Last night, the Rockets beat the Lakers 112–97 in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals, behind 36 points from James Harden, 24 from Russell Westbrook, and 23 from Eric Gordon. Much was made of the stylistic differences between the teams: Houston plays small, while the Lakers are big. But the Lakers did not lose because they played big; they lost because they did not play big enough.

When the Rockets traded Clint Capela and released Isaiah Hartenstein at the trade deadline, they officially committed to full-time small ball. Outside of two Tyson Chandler free throws in a strange situation during Game 5, the Rockets have not played a traditional center in the playoffs.

The usual downside to staying big against a team playing a small lineup is the threat of your big men being drawn outside to guard a faster perimeter player. This can be incredibly dangerous since most bigs do not have the foot speed to stay with wings or guards—think Steph roasting Rudy Gobert in the 2017 second round, or Festus Ezeli’s putrid showing against the Cavaliers in the 2016 Finals. But it is not as much of a danger against this iteration of the Rockets.

Unlike many other small-ball teams, the Rockets do not utilize off-ball movement a lot as part of their offense. Instead, they mostly stand in place behind the three-point line, so a big guarding PJ Tucker or Jeff Green is not going to have to chase them around the perimeter. Sure, those players will shoot threes if left open, making it hard to help off them to protect the rim, but they also are not much of a threat to beat you off the dribble.

Houston does not use screens much to force switches. They finished only 16.3 possessions per game with the pick-and-roll in the regular season, least in the NBA. The Rockets are content to let their stars work in isolation against whoever was guarding them, so opposing big men avoid having to constantly guard James Harden or Russell Westbrook—this is part of the reason Luguentz Dort spent so many possessions on Harden in the first round. Last night, Harden’s most frequent defender was Danny Green, and Westbrook’s was Anthony Davis; both Davis and Green have the foot speed to keep up with perimeter players.

This is an area where Houston can (and should) adjust should the Lakers take control of the series. Harden and Westbrook obliterate big men on switches when they get the opportunity, but Houston does not force switches very often. As a result, OKC’s Steven Adams, a very slow, lumbering big, was able to log high minute totals in the first round without being a defensive liability.

The Rockets’ offense worked so well against the Lakers last night because the Lakers could not protect the rim, not because they were roasting bigs on switches. Houston scored 32 points inside five feet on 66.7% shooting, as Westbrook (6/11 inside 5 feet) and Harden (5/8) were able to get inside at will. The Thunder had the same issue in the first round. According to NBA.com, the Rockets scored 33.8 points per game against Oklahoma City inside five feet (4th in the playoffs), though they only shot 56.5% (13th). But the Lakers have a counter.

JaVale McGee played only 12.6 minutes last night (down from averaging 16.6 in the regular season), while Dwight Howard played 11.1 (down from 18.9). This left long stretches where Davis was the only big. When Davis is guarding Westbrook on the perimeter, there is nobody back to protect the rim if he is the only big. The Lakers need another big who can help off shooters to protect the rim, so McGee and Howard need to play more. (In fact, McGee was the only Laker with a positive plus/minus (+5) last night.) Otherwise, they will continue to be beaten by plays like this, where Harden drives on Davis with Danny Green as the help defender:

Harden drives on Davis with Danny Green protecting the rim

Houston’s small ball does make it hard to protect the rim against them. They like to rearrange their players early in the shot clock to take rim-protectors out of position, and they will fire away without hesitation from outside. But Houston is not that good, percentage-wise, at shooting threes; they only made 34.5% of their attempts this season, 24th(!!!) in the NBA. Even last night, the Rockets shot just 35.9% from three on 39 attempts, which would have ranked 15th in the NBA in the regular season.

Of all the Rockets’ rotation players, only Ben McLemore (40.0%) hit threes at an elite rate this season. The rest of the team was around average or, in the cases of Eric Gordon (31.7%) and Robert Covington (33.5%), below. Most of the Rockets have reputations as good three-point shooters, but Houston won Game 1 in the paint. It may be smarter for the Lakers to help off shooters to prevent Harden and Westbrook from living at the rim and force Tucker, Covington, or the struggling Gordon (though he looked good in Game 1) to beat them from outside.

While the Lakers did struggle to contain the Rockets on defense, the bigger issue was on offense. The Lakers only scored 97 points with a 99.3 offensive rating, which would have ranked last in the league in the regular season. Bigger teams need to punish small-ball teams on defense through post scoring, lobs, and offensive rebounding. Houston generally does well defending the post since they have a lot of thick defenders, but they are susceptible to putbacks and lobs. Instead of capitalizing on those weaknesses, the Lakers got outscored in the paint and only beat the Rockets 12–8 on second-chance points.

The Lakers tried to match Houston’s small lineup for a lot of the game. They spent large chunks of minutes with Davis at center surrounded by wings. The Lakers have struggled with spacing, so theoretically this makes sense; drop a non-shooting big for a wing, unclog the paint. But many of the Laker wings do not shoot the ball well either. Replacing Howard or McGee with Rajon Rondo, a career 31.6% three-point shooter whom Houston ignores from outside, does little to improve spacing.

The Rockets help off Rondo in the corner to double Davis

When the Lakers go small, the Rockets still wall off the paint, but the Lakers have fewer lob threats and rebounders. The Lakers shot 28.9% from three last night on 38 attempts and ranked 21st in the NBA in three-point percentage in the regular season, and on top of that, Houston outscored them in the paint. That is not a recipe for success.

The Lakers should be able to win the battle inside by playing Davis alongside another big man and scoring through lobs and putbacks. Inside defenders will have to track faster perimeter players, and this will create some interior spacing. (One thing to monitor: Houston will struggle to keep up with the Lakers inside, but a bigger team like the Clippers will be able to better defend the Lakers should they advance. It will be much tougher for the Lakers to overcome spacing through size should they meet in the conference finals).

The Thunder also were not able to do much inside against the Rockets’ small lineups in the first round, scoring 29.4 points per game (12th among playoff teams) inside five feet on just 55.7% shooting (14th). Houston’s switch-heavy defense took away the Thunder’s ability to score out of the pick-and-roll, But Oklahoma City also struggled to score through putbacks (5.4 points per game) or post-ups (5.3 points per game). Adams was a major culprit, averaging only 10.1 points per game.

But the Thunder were able to find success on the offensive boards. The Thunder outrebounded the Rockets 349–303, collecting offensive rebounds on 25.3% of possessions; Adams alone collected 11.6 rebounds per game, including 4.9 offensive. That helped them extend the series to seven games. Ultimately, they could not score enough inside to win the series despite staying big, but their success on the boards points to an area where the Lakers can find an advantage.

The Lakers’ frontcourt is much better than Oklahoma City’s. Los Angeles led the league in the regular season with 45.6 points per game inside five feet on 67.0% shooting. The Lakers also had higher offensive (28.3% to 24.1%) and defensive (73.7% to 72.8%) rebounding rates than the Thunder, and scored more on putbacks (8.0 to 4.5) and post-ups (8.0 to 4.3). In the first round, the Lakers dominated the Blazers inside, averaging 46.0 points per game inside five feet, 9.2 on putbacks, and winning the rebounds 242–214. They have more than enough firepower to score on the Rockets through bully ball.

Rebounding in the 2019-20 Regular Season

Anthony Davis should feast on the small-ball Rockets; he’s more than capable of either shooting over Houston’s defenders and scoring inside on them. Last night, he had 25 points and 14 rebounds. But Howard and McGee only contributed 5 points and 7 rebounds between them. They are both legitimate threats on lobs and putbacks, and the Lakers should use them more.

The Rockets won handily last night, but the Lakers can and should counter by playing two bigs at the same time. It will help them both defensively, where they can increase rim protection; and offensively, where they can get easy baskets through lobs and putbacks. Houston is a good team, but the Lakers should still win this series.

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