Last Word on Pro Basketball is giving you an NBA Playoffs preview for each series as it begins inside the bubble.
The Houston Rockets are coming off a tiring seven game series against the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Lakers hoped to face the Thunder, especially as they battled and extended the series to Game 7. However, the fourth-seeded Rockets’ firepower was too much for them, hence they face an opportunity to upset the first-seeded Lakers.
NBA Playoffs Preview: Los Angeles Lakers vs. Houston Rockets
Regular Season Series
The Rockets won the regular season series over the Lakers 2-1, with a 10 point victory in February and a crushing 16 point win during the bubble. The Lakers’ lone victory came in January, where they held James Harden to 14 points and five fouls.
A unique note to bring up is that the Rockets are coming off a long, seven-game series that ended two nights ago. The Lakers have practiced and scouted Houston and Oklahoma City for under a week, so they are well-rested. This is crucial for a team that relies on its veteran presence.
The long break could either make or break the Lakers. This series is the first one where both teams are close to full health, so it will test both teams and see who comes out on top.
Size wise, the Lakers have a huge advantage due to the length of Anthony Davis and LeBron James. During the postseason, Davis is averaging 29.8 points, 9.4 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.6 blocks per game. James is averaging 27.4 points, 10.2 rebounds, 10.2 assists and 1.2 steals per game, channeling his inner playoff mode early on.
JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard have shown solid defense down low in the post and perimeter, but that will not cut it in this series. That is because the Rockets do not have a traditional center or post player on their roster. P.J. Tucker, Robert Covington and Eric Gordon make up the frontcourt, but neither have the size or strength to consistently guard James or Davis the entire game. Although, Covington could defend James for a majority of the games due to his strength and versatility on defense.
Covington has excelled for the Rockets during the postseason, as he is shooting 50 percent from behind the arc and averaging 2.8 steals and 1.8 blocks during the First Round. Due to the Rockets’ run and gun small ball style of play, do not expect the Lakers to utilize McGee and Howard as much this series. The Rockets have the quicker frontcourt, but you cannot beat the size of James and Davis.
Advantage – Los Angeles Lakers
This is where things get interesting in this NBA Playoffs preview. The Rockets arguably have one of the best backcourts in the league, led by Harden and Russell Westbrook. Harden is having a monstrous postseason, averaging 29.4 points, 6.2 rebounds, 7.9 assists and 1.2 steals per game. He is even stepping it up on defense, saving the Rockets in game seven with a last second block against Luguentz Dort. Westbrook is the X-factor of this series due to his recovery from a lingering quad injury.
A quad injury definitely slows a player down, especially when driving to the basket, something Westbrook does exceptionally well in. The Lakers’ backcourt consists of Danny Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, but neither are capable of consistently guarding the quick duo of Harden and Westbrook. Alex Caruso is very effective on defense and has the highest plus-minus rating on the Lakers for a reason. He is excellent at closing out players, so he can defend Gordon, Ben McLemore or Austin Rivers if the Lakers decide to trap Harden or Westbrook (very likely they will do this).
The Rockets live and die by shooting. Westbrook may not be as efficient scoring wise, but can easily dish out the ball to the Rockets’ shooters on the court. Houston also excels in an area the Lakers struggle in: free throws. The Rockets were fifth in the bubble in free throw shooting (82.1 percent), while the Lakers were dead last (72.4 percent). However, the Lakers excel in transition offense and Westbrook has been struggling with his passing accuracy, so the Rockets have to play mistake-free to excel.
If the Rockets get hot on offense and the Lakers cannot keep up with their defensive switches, Houston will take the series.
Advantage – Houston Rockets
Offensively, the Lakers have not shown efficiency on paper, but they have stepped up on defense against Portland. Their bigs will be close to useless due to the Rockets’ small ball lineup and rotation, but veteran point guard Rajon Rondo will return off the bench. The Lakers do not have a consistent facilitator, but Rondo’s experience could benefit Los Angeles with his high basketball IQ and passing skills. However, if the Rockets defend him well, that leaves more pressure on the Lakers’ X-factor: Kyle Kuzma.
With the exception of Game 5, Kuzma has stepped up in the bubble and during the First Round. So far in the postseason, he is averaging 10.8 points and 4.4 rebounds while shooting 36 percent from the field. He has struggled in a few games, but has made it up defensively. There were questions on why Dion Waiters did not see a lot of action against Portland it is likely due to defensive liability. He would have struggled against Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum since Portland ran an off-ball movement heavy offense. The Rockets’ offense relies on a quick, ball movement style, so Waiters can match up with their backcourt.
As for Houston, they do not utilize most of their bench, but due to success from Jeff Green, McLemore, Rivers and Danuel House. Green has been on a hot shooting streak, shooting 50.7 percent from the field and 46.5 percent from the three-point line. House has also shot well with 44.4 percent from the field and 37.2 percent behind the arc. If both players continue their hot streak, the Rockets will run away with the series.
Advantage – Houston Rockets
NBA Playoffs Preview: Coaching and Intangibles
One of the Lakers’ strengths is their passing ability. Prior to the bubble, they were ranked 10th in assists, averaging 25.4 assists, compared to the Rockets’ 21.6 per game. It also helps when the assists champion is on your roster, as James averaged over 10 assists per game.
Houston also excels in hustle defense plays, including charges. They are ranked third in the league in charges, which is what the Lakers have to watch out for when utilizing their “bully ball” approach to drive to the basket. If Houston sets their feet on defense, runs the court, find the open man in passing lanes and hit their threes, they will excel.
Coaching wise, both coaches have success in the postseason. Houston coach Mike D’Antoni holds a .682 winning percentage (prior to the postseason) in four seasons with the Rockets. Los Angeles Lakers coach Frank Vogel has excelled in his first year with the team, earning a .732 winning percentage. Career wise, he has a .535 winning percentage in nine seasons as an NBA head coach.
Vogel has coached in the 2014 and 2020 All-Star Games and made the Eastern Conference finals with the Indiana Pacers in 2013 and 2014.
D’Antoni has had his success within his 16 years as a head coach. He won two NBA Coach of the Year awards in 2005 and 2017. His system is well known for dictating game pace and scoring at-will, which are very crucial components to coaching in the NBA.
D’Antoni gets the edge in this NBA Playoffs preview due to his awards, but Vogel is right by him.
Advantage – Houston Rockets
NBA Playoffs Preview Prediction – Los Angeles Lakers in Seven Games
This will be a major test for the Lakers. This series is not going to be easy for either team, but especially for Los Angeles. It would not be shocking if the Rockets pull an upset as the fourth seed, but the Lakers are just too strong and long up front for Houston to defend.
Both teams will go back and forth, but the Rockets are at a disadvantage due to coming off a long and tiring game seven series. The Lakers are well-rested and should come in strong, if they execute offensively and make their shots and free throws. If they perform with the same energy against Portland (asides from Game One), the Lakers will move on. If the Rockets shoot well, they will upset the first place Lakers.
Editor’s Note: Houston won game one of the series 112-97 on Friday