Lakers vs Rockets: Who will advance?

With the NBA Bubble winding down, teams are competing at an all-time high to see who takes home the trophy. During this current series, the Lakers and Rockets are facing off against each other. Both teams have talented rosters, however, there are a few things each team needs to do in order to beat their opponent.

Starting with the Rockets, to put it bluntly, James Harden has to be exceptional. The Rockets cannot afford for Harden to have another game like game seven in the first round against the OKC Thunder. The deeper you go into the playoffs the slimmer the margins for error are, which is only amplified when you are playing arguably the greatest basketball player ever and his best teammate.

Harden cannot afford to have an off night. Considering his co-star, Russell Westbrook, may still be harboring a quadriceps injury, which may explain his lackluster performances since he’s returned.

Since the playoffs, Harden is averaging 30.1 points per game on absurd efficiency (64.1 TS%), while still being his teams primary facilitator, dishing out 7.6 assists per game. The question with Harden was never his capability, rather his consistency.

The question remains, will Harden be able to keep up this level of play long enough to fend off LeBron James and Anthony Davis?

If so the Rockets have a real chance to pull off the upset against the favorite in the western conference.

Moreover, Westbrook can’t continue down this path of destruction. With the series already three games in, we have already gotten the entire Westbrook experience. In game one Westbrook scored 24 points and dished out six assists in a Rockets victory.

However, in game two Westbrook had one of the worst games by an NBA star in modern playoffs history. Westbrook’s performance was cataclysmic, dreadful, and awful. Costing the Rockets going up 2-0 on the best team in the West (according to regular season record).

All the blame doesn’t necessarily fall on Westbrook, it is up to Rockets coach, Mike D’Antoni, to get Westbrook more involved with the ball and downhill. This change will mitigate some of the damage Westbrook inflicts upon his own team. After all, the Rockets didn’t trade for him to be an off ball shooter. They traded for him to be the Westbrook we all know, the relentless attacker that can truly take advantage of the spaced out floor.

Westbrook’s freakish athleticism allows for him to consistently get into the teeth of the defenses, forcing the Lakers to make on the fly decisions. These decisions lead to mistakes, simplifying the game for not only himself as a passer but his teammates.

Due to the scoring volume and two way nature of the sport, basketball gives individual stars a ridiculous amount of control over the game.

No championship team in NBA history has ever won off of the backs of star power alone. The Lakers, most notably James and Davis, have been arguably one of the best two man shows in NBA history. Although, their supporting cast has been less than stellar.

Ever since his rookie season the winning formula for building around James is to put shooters around him. The Lakers front office has failed to do that. The Lakers are the third worst three-point shooting team in the NBA bubble (33.3%, which is roughly 2% below league average) behind the eliminated Oklahoma City Thunder and Philadelphia 76ers.

This can cause major issues for the Lakers offensively. As mentioned before, Houston can afford to hedge their bets by loading up on the Lakers stars. The Lakers rotation perimeter players (Alex Caruso, Rajon Rondo, Markieff Morris, Danny Green, Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope) shoot a combined 31.46% from behind the arc.

Utilizing this strategy could prove effective in mitigating the size advantage Davis has over Houston’s key players, PJ Tucker and Robert Covington.

By doing so Houston can both affect Davis’ shots and help on the defensive glass by taking defenders away from the perimeter and closer towards the basket.

On the contrary, the Lakers role players must step up. The Lakers are a top heavy team. After their top two guys, there is a stark contrast between the Lakers and Rockets complimentary pieces.

Green has been a shell of himself and Rondo is ten years too late. Kuzma has struggled heavily in these playoffs, while Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee will struggle defending Houston’s small ball attack.

The Lakers supporting players are a bunch of wild cards. I would not be surprised if there are games where Markieff Morris is one of the best players on the court, or if Kyle Kuzma has a 20 point game.

However, these occurrences are likely few and far between and certainly will not match the consistency that the Houston Rockets’ role players boast. If the Lakers want to win this series, their ancillary pieces must step up and punish the Rockets for cheating off of them and send help to James and Davis.

For the Lakers to win this series Davis has to play big. The only thing stopping Davis from dominating this series is himself. Davis is 6’10,” 254 pounds, with a 7’6” wingspan.

Meanwhile, he is being defended by 6’5” Tucker and 6’7” Covington.

In the first few games of this series Davis has been playing directly into the Rockets game plan. The Rockets play Money ball, an analytically driven prioritization of three-point field goals and layups (the most efficient shots in basketball) over mid-range jumpers.

Davis made a compelling case to become this year’s defensive player of the year. His combination of size, length and mobility make him a perfect fit for any defensive scheme. Although Davis is capable of doing many things on the defensive end, I would not advise they stick him on the Rockets opposing big men. I propose they put him on former MVP, Westbrook.

Davis’ value as a defender comes as a rim protector, something that is only increasingly more important when facing a scorer as prolific at the rim as Harden.

Meanwhile, Westbrook is shooting a career low of 16.7% from behind the arc. Ignoring Westbrook outside of the three point line allows Davis to linger around the rim where he is most effective.

The Rockets were not taken as seriously coming into this series, now let’s see who prevails; David or Goliath.