The progression of the matchup between the Lakers and the Rockets has been fun to watch, but also moving faster than I anticipated. After a game 1 that saw the Lakers play the Rockets with fairly vanilla schemes on both sides of the ball and lose, they went heavy on adjustments in game 2 and pulled out a much needed win.
Those adjustments — trapping James Harden more defensively, sending cutters through the lane and incorporating more movement and screening off ball offensively — worked well for most of the game, but Houston countered them well enough in the 3rd quarter to go on a massive run with hot shooting and sharp defense. Game 3, then, should feature another round of adjustments and, if the Lakers are game, counters to see who can out maneuver who to get a pivotal 2nd win in the race to 4 of them.
This has all moved a bit quicker than I anticipated, honestly. I thought the Lakers would stick with their big lineups more in game 2, considering the success they had with them defensively in their limited stints in the 1st game. I also did not expect the Rockets to get away from their drive game as much as they did, especially Westbrook who settled for long jumpers more often than he should have.
Heading into this game, I do expect different from the Rockets. The Lakers are very likely to continue to throw different coverages at Harden, trying to mix up their approach to keep him off balance. Harden is way too good an offensive player to keep any riddle unsolved for long. I expect him to string out the Lakers double teams more to make their rotations harder. I also expect him to attack off the dribble away from the direction of the double team in order to try to beat the point of attack pressure and get downhill to get more shots in the paint. And, when the ball does swing to Russ, I anticipate him driving more and looking to score more often as well.
On the Lakers end, the discipline they’ll need to show defensively remains incredibly high. Their rotations must not only be sharp and their help be early, they’ll need to contain enough at the point of attack to ensure that the rotations behind the ball can be set up correctly and flow through a natural progression. Houston will absolutely eat up a scrambling defense and the types of open looks they’ll generate when the rotations are off will sink you.
With that, the Lakers need to be aggressive, but smart. They cannot haphazzardly trap without a clear line of successive rotations ready to go behind the ball. They’ll also need to keep a big body between Russ and the rim in order to help less on his drives and make those kickout passes less viable. This responsibility primarily falls on AD, but it could be Morris, LeBron, Danny Green, Caruso, or Kuzma too. These players must make Russ finish over the top vs. a high contest and not cede too much runway to let him explode through contact and still convert.
Offensively, the Lakers will surely continue to use motion and screens off ball to allow AD and Bron to play one-on-one with enough space to get off shots in their comfort zones. From Houston, however, expect them to be more prepared to deal with this approach.
They could get more aggressive too, trapping and sending earlier doubles to try to disrupt those guys’ timing and not allow them to find a rhythm. This can be particularly effective vs. AD, so he needs to have his reads set up early as a passer or use escape dribbles and back up off the double to make Houston decide if they’re going to stay with the trap or rotate out of it. If the latter happens, AD must then get back to attacking as the double retreats and do it assertively to generate good shots.
Another tactic I hope to see more of this game is straight line drives from the wing by players not named Bron or AD. When the Rockets played OKC, the Thunder were at their best offensively when Schroeder, CP3, and SGA were able to get downhill and get into the teeth of Houston’s defense. While Houston can rotate well, they’re less effective when doing so vs. straight-line drives that lead to the type of kickout passes where everyone has to be moving in unison.
One way to achieve this is by using LeBron and AD as screeners for Rondo and Caruso. Houston does not want to switch off either of LA’s stars and using that focus to stay attached to both against them can be a good way to free up the dribbler if he is attacking with purpose rather than just looking to probe. If those two can get downhill quickly, it can lead to shots in the paint and open 3’s as the Rockets play 2 on 3 on the opposite side of the floor.1Here is a great clip of this action working well.
Lastly, it’s very rare that Houston shoots as well as they did in game 2 and loses. The Lakers cannot make it a habit of surrendering the number of quality looks the Rockets got last game because those are the shots that will continue to fall at a high rate. Houston understands they’re getting the shots they want and if the series continues this way, they have every right to feel confident they will make enough of them to win. It would be nice if the Lakers can clean some of that up and, if they can’t, it would be nice if Houston went cold for a game or three. Hahaha.
You cannot bet on the latter, however. So, give me even sharper defense, please. And, while you’re at it, another good game from Kuzma, Morris, Caruso, and “playoff Rondo” would also be great.
Where you can watch: 6:00pm start time on TNT.