The evolution of the Lakers series with the Rockets has very much mirrored their 1st round matchup with the Blazers. After losing game 1 on both rounds, the Lakers adjusted more and more to the strengths and tendencies of both teams to win more and more convincingly. In game 4 vs. Houston, the Lakers only ended up with a 10 point victory, but their dominance through 3 quarters clearly impacted their effort and attentiveness down the stretch. Houston capitalized to make the game close, but an Alex Caruso dagger ended that.
Game 5, then, only has one pressing question for me: was Houston’s late game rally indicative of something–an approach, a newfound strategy–that can carry over to tonight’s contest? If the answer to that is yes, the Lakers will need to be ready to adjust, again, in order to maintain their advantages.
Houston went ultra small in those minutes, using quickness and aggressiveness in the passing lanes to generate turnovers, get stops, and turn those into good scoring opportunities. After scoring, they were able to set their own defense and deny the Lakers the types of open court chances that fuel their own offensive success. Rinse, repeat. That said, if the answer to that question is no, well, Houston might be in real trouble this game.
I’d probably lean towards the latter, simply becuase Houston’s 4th quarter lineups did not include some of their better players who they’ll need to win over the course of a full game. PJ Tucker played fewer than 6 minutes that period and Robert Covington did not play at all. I know Mike D’Antoni can go off-script at times, but I seriously doubt he believes he can win this game–to say nothing of the series–without major contributions from Tucker and Covington.
Which brings us back to something we mentioned for game 4, but will matter even more tonight: Houston’s effort level and the Lakers willingness to lock in and stay focused for a full game. I think Rockets fans would admit their team did not play nearly hard enough last game, especially when you consider the stakes. I’d imagine that would change tonight with this game being a true elimination game. And, if that’s the case, the Lakers will need to bring their top effort to send them home.
The Lakers cannot get comfortable with their series lead or think that Houston is going to fold. That’s a mindset that will lead to this series going into next week. No, the Lakers must maintain their focus, continue to execute defensively, and then seize the opportunities in the open court to generate good offensive possessions. Do that over the course of a full game and they’ll be waiting on the winner of the Clippers/Nuggets series.
Which brings me to my final point. The Lakers are in a good position to get some extra rest and more preparation time for the the WCF. With Denver getting a win on Friday night, the Lakers can do themselves a lot of favors by dispatching Houston now and not allowing this series to go any longer than it has to. And while the Rockets will have a say in this too, the Lakers have proven themselves the better team through 4 games and by bringing their top level they should win.
After all, we all understand the strategic aspects of this series at this point. There is not an ace up the sleeve of either team or some massive strategic shift that will upend the series. The only thing left to do is to play the best version of your own game by valuing each possession and playing with the requisite attention to detail and effort. We will see which one of these teams does it best.
Where you can watch: 5:00pm start time on ESPN.