The Lakers got an “identity win” against the Rockets on Sunday, playing inspired defense, getting a dominant performance from AD, a great boost from KCP who came back from his ankle injury, and strong bench performances from THT and Montrezl Harrell. It really was their best game of the season, particularly from the standpoint of how hard they competed and the level of seriousness they brought to all that they did.
Tonight, in the rematch, my hope is that we’ll see the same from this team and that Sunday night was more the beginning of a strong stretch of play rather than an outlier performance in a “one for you, one for us” type of fan appeasement way. We’ll see, I guess.
One thing that could help it be the former is that there was a bit of bad blood in Sunday’s game. After Markieff Morris got called for a foul for knocking down a Rockets player, Boogie Cousins responded in kind by knocking Keef to the ground with a shoulder of his own. Keef, not known for taking anyone’s bullshitAt least as it is perceived by him., quickly got up, rushed Boogie, and shoved him. This led to technicals being called and Keef being ejected. Fast forward a bit and Boogie, in an attempt to swipe the ball away on a Bron drive, hit him in the head and was subsequently ejected when, upon review, had his foul be upgraded to a flagrant 2.
So, this is the fun of these “baseball style” series of games the NBA has instituted this year. Not only do you get some learning of opponents and adjustments deployed, you also get any beefs from the previous game carried over and in a short turnaround. The potential for some emotions to still be there are much stronger and that certainly can influence the tenor of the game. I’m not sure if we get that tonight, but there is certainly that potential. After all, Keef and Boogie aren’t exactly the coolest of heads when it comes to this sort of thing.
Beyond that, though, there are real X’s and O’s stuff to look for this game. I thought one of the biggest keys to Sunday’s win from the Lakers side was their defensive intensity and how that facilitated their ability to get into the open court for transition baskets. That was a hallmark of last year’s Lakers and, I think, is a key reason Vogel characterized the game the way he did. Tonight, then, I hope the Lakers look to bring that same sort of pressure defensively and also make getting out in transition a point of emphasis for how they’ll attack offensively.
Having KCP back really aids in this, and I hope to see him streaking up court looking for layups on runouts and for open three’s by filling deep corner in early offense. I also hope to see Bron, AD, and Gasol looking for the long outlet pass, not only to KCP, but to Caruso and Kuz too when both are in the game. Another way the Lakers can get out for easy baskets, as they did on Sunday, is to turn closeouts into sprints up the floor. AD was great at this when recovering to Christian Wood 3-point attempts and this is a subtle way AD can get out for easy baskets if Wood is going to pick-and-pop or act as a pressure release at the top of the floor as often as he did on Sunday.
Beyond just playing more assertively and with more effort defensively, the Lakers must also understand that some of the Rockets players are capable of playing much better than they did in the last game and be prepared for better execution on their end. That starts with Harden who, even though he shot 50% from the field, only took 14 shots from the field and 5 FT’s. There’s a level of aggressiveness that Harden simply lacked last game and I’m guessing we’re going to see a more engaged version of him tonight.
And then there’s Wood, who may have had a nice boxscore at the end of the game, but didn’t play particularly well when watching the tape. A lot of his damage as a scorer came in the non-consequential parts of the game, but he’s more than capable of carrying over the footing he found in garbage time to the more meaningful portions of this game. Even though he’s not shot the ball well from 3 this year (and was only 1-5 last game), the Lakers still must account for him out there and if he gets hot from deep, it can change Houston’s overall effectiveness in a heartbeat.
As we’ve seen in both the 2nd games vs. the Spurs and the Grizzlies, expect tonight’s game to be much more competitive. It’s hard to beat teams back to back, particularly when both games are in their arena. The Lakers are going to need a repeat of the effort and commitment to defend they had the last game, but if they get it they should be in good shape.
Where you can watch: 5:00pm start time on Spectrum SportsNet and NBA TV.