To Beat The Lakers, The Rockets Have To Adjust

The NBA Playoffs are always about adjustments.  

We’re seeing what happens when a team doesn’t make them with the Milwaukee Bucks right now.  Down 2-0 to Miami, Mike Budenholzer’s team has stuck to their traditional ways: going under screens, protecting the paint, not switching and giving up tons of threes.

It’s hurting them.  Miami’s three point shooting has been the difference thus far, in addition to the continued problem of Giannis Antentokounmpo not having a half-court or isolation game.  That would be negotiable if the Bucks were defending at an acceptable rate.

The Bucks have a lot at stake in this series, which makes it even more surprising that they’re not making the necessary adjustments. Antetokounmpo is a free agent after next season, whenever that begins.  The Bucks essentially have these playoffs and next year’s to convince the soon-to-be back-to-back MVP winner to stay with them long-term.  Not even getting to the Finals this season may not only jeopardize him staying with the team, but it could lead to him wanting out before his contract even expires.

The Houston Rockets have a lot at stake too.  Rumors have been floated about head coach Mike D’Antoni’s future with the team if a disappointing playoff exit occurs.  GM Daryl Morey could see the boot as well.  Perhaps most importantly, another early playoff exit from James Harden would be devastating for his resume – perhaps being fatal even if he were to get over the hump someday.

Houston got through the first round without making real adjustments to their style of play.  They were able to beat Oklahoma City in the ways we thought they could.  They made a number of threes that the Thunder couldn’t come close to matching, and swallowed their offense with length, size and switching on the defensive end.  It was too much for a Thunder team that possessed craft but not enough creativity and impact offensively.

But OKC came close.  The Thunder stretched Houston to seven games, and only lost by two in the series finale.  That was a bit more of a nail-biter than a team like Houston – who has aspirations of winning the Finals – would like to experience in just the first round.

How did they get there?  Well, Houston never pivoted when they should have.  The Rockets might make a lot of threes, sure – you don’t make them without taking them.  But Houston takes them when they shouldn’t.  Harden had another bad performance in Game 7 against OKC, continuing his career-long trend of not showing up for big games.  He started 1-6 from the field and 0-3 from deep in the first quarter, and by halftime, he was 2-8 and 1-5, respectively.  In the third, he was 0-4 from the field and 0-3 from deep.  Here was his last three point attempt of the quarter.

Some nights you just don’t have it, and it’s okay to recognize that.  Here, Harden doesn’t.  He’s already 1-8 from three when he takes this shot, which is only a good one unless you’ve hit three in a row and are on complete fire.

These are the type of possessions and shots Houston can’t afford against the Lakers starting Friday night.  They’re what cost them against Oklahoma City.  It’s why that series went seven games.  It’s not just Harden that takes them.  It’s everyone – and the worst offenders (Russell Westbrook) are those who have no business shooting them even if they’re open looks.

Oklahoma City was a bad matchup, but not necessarily because of their personnel or schemes.  The Thunder were a bad matchup for practically everybody because of the effort they exert and how hard they play.  That grit doesn’t just apply to Houston.

The Lakers are truly a bad matchup for the Rockets, and it’s because of their roster. Sure, LeBron James and Anthony Davis are two of the five best players in basketball, making them an issue for every team, but the Rockets are in a different category.  Davis is a serious problem.  

Houston’s smart decision to go super-small with PJ Tucker at center could bite them here.  Los Angeles is going to do all they can to get Davis the most touches possible against the 6’7 Tucker, who despite posing issues to Davis in the past should be overwhelmed if the Lakers feed AD enough.  Davis shouldn’t be taking jumpers this series – not because he’s bad at them, but just because they’ll be less efficient baskets given his matchup with Tucker.

Despite some of Tucker’s prior success against Davis, it could be wise to make Robert Covington the de-facto center.  His defense against the Thunder was outstanding, especially late in Game 7.  He made multiple help rotations to stifle OKC’s guards at the rim – if they even got there.  He’s a bit more wirey than Tucker, which could help prevent Davis’ drives from the perimeter.  At the same time, the sturdiness Tucker brings would help in the post.

You can’t put it past Davis to score every time this series.  Like Houston, he needs to adjust and not settle.  Get low and get the ball.  Your life should be easy if you do that.

If Davis is scoring every time, Houston has their work cut out for them.  They need their shots to go in.

When Houston isn’t dead cold from three, they’re usually able to win.  Even if the percentage isn’t as pretty as you’d like, it’s the volume of shots that are made.  That’s what OKC experienced.  Even if Davis scores every time, the age-old “three is bigger than two” argument still prevails.

But when what happened in Game 4 against Oklahoma City happens, that’s when things get dicey for Houston, especially against the Lakers.  The Rockets have to know when they’re cold, and have to adjust when that’s the case.  What does that look like?  Not taking shots like the one Harden took above.  Or shots like these.

All of these were taken while the Rockets were in the midst of 5-21 shooting stretch from behind the arc.  Houston lost by two points, which could have easily been made up in at least one of these three possessions.

In the first one, it’s a simple isolation with zero ball movement, which probably would have been nice to utilize given that the ball was having a hard enough time going in the basket.  In the second clip, Harden settles for a deep three after not using a screen by Covington.  It was late in the shot clock, but Harden had time to get a floater up instead of taking the shot he did, which bricked the front of the rim.

The third clip is perhaps the most egregious.  Harden has Nerlens Noel on him, who has zero shot of containing a potential drive – it would likely result in a foul.  The shot clock is winding down again, but there’s time to get a floater off like the second clip.  Chris Paul is helping way off his man, which could have resulted in a last minute kick opportunity to the league’s best corner shooter in Tucker.

These are just bad shots that didn’t have to be taken, especially considering the circumstances of being cold as ice from deep.  Unlike Oklahoma City, the Lakers are probably going to able to score every time if they so choose with Davis, and we haven’t even mentioned James yet.  Empty possessions like those above from Houston could put them in a hole fast.

Davis could be more important than James this series.  Whichever Houston defender between Tucker and Covington isn’t on Davis will be on James, and while neither will stop him, those aren’t the worst options in the world.  He won’t be faced with the defense Portland offered.

Houston’s defense against the drives of Thunder guards offered some hope in their fight against James this series.  Their performance late in Game 7 represented their ceiling, and it’s a pretty high one.  The Rockets have the ability to make James really work.

The Lakers have the ability to make him not, though, and that lies strictly in Davis’ effort and shot selection.  Unless Houston adjusts, which seems unlikely, this is his series.  If the Rockets do limit their low quality shot attempts, move the ball a bit more, shoot well and insert the no-jumpers rule for Westbrook, then they can win this series.  It’s 100 percent in their hands.  If all of those occur, LeBron’s impact will be reduced just enough, and Davis’ monster games won’t matter.  Three is that much bigger than two, but you just can’t cherry pick it.  

Prediction: Lakers in 7