With the trade deadline come and gone, the Lakers and Rockets face off tonight. The Lakers are the same team they’ve been after standing pat. The Rockets are drastically different.
In one of the bigger trades the NBA has seen in terms of players moved in a single deal, the Rockets have swapped out starting Center Clint Capela for starting combo forward Robert Covington. There are other pieces involved for both the Rockets and T’Wolves (not to mention the Nuggets and Hawks who were also in on this deal), but this is the gist of it for things that matter for tonight’s game.
The Rockets are going all in on small ball. PJ Tucker starts at C. Covington, when he’s fully integrated, will start at PF. I’d imagine the rest of the lineup will be Danuel House, Russ, and Harden. Tonight, with Covington not starting, maybe Eric Gordon gets the call, maybe Austin Rivers or Ben McLemore. What’s clear, though, is it’s not likely to be anyone taller than 6’6″.
This game will come down to size vs. spacing and which team can dictate the terms of engagement in order to have their strategy win out. The Rockets are going to push the pace, trying to turn defensive rebounds into open court chances that lead to layups and 3 pointers. In the half court, they’ll run P&R time and time again in a single possession until they get a matchup they like and try to get a layup, an open 3, or draw fouls that way. They’ll do this all night, hoping to make enough shots and get the Lakers defense scrambling to put them on tilt and win the game.
The Lakers, then, will need to be smart about how they deploy their lineups, but even more important about how they organize their defense, how often they crash the offensive glass, how often they play through the post, and how often the look to push the pace themselves. The Lakers mustn’t ever let go of the rope and go full on “let’s run with these guys”, but they should still seek out advantages, particularly in transition.
They should also look to attack the rim, especially off the dribble. I’d love to see the Lakers run more P&R, to force more switches, until LeBron can get a player on him he feels comfortable driving on. There will not be any rim protection waiting for him — much like the game in Houston a couple of weeks ago that the Lakers won when they took over in the 2nd half. In the 4th quarter of that game, the Lakers played a LeBron/Dudley PF/C combo and absolutely shredded the Rockets w/ LeBron driving to finish at the rim and kicking out to shooters when Houston got forced into rotation.
Tonight, I’d like to see more of that. I’d also like for the Lakers to learn some lessons about how to defend Russ from that game, where more size was better (Kuz did a good job on him in the 2nd half) and that simply enticing him to shoot 3’s by sagging off would not work. Russ has almost abandoned the long ball entirely, instead looking to drive to the paint where layups and fouls await him. The Lakers must understand this, know how to rotate to Russ in order to contain these drives and play with more force overall.
As for Harden, get the ball out of his hands as much as possible, but not to the detriment of your ability to rotate out and be scrambling to the point of being spread too thin. And when you’re playing in space against Harden without help, Do. Not. Foul. I know it’s easier said than done, but if this is a night where Harden is 18-20 from the FT line, the Lakers are not likely to win.
Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time on TNT.