(Photo by Gary A. Vasquez – USA TODAY Sports)

Article written by Zach Zola (@zachzola1)

On February 6, Lakers superstar Anthony Davis ravaged the Houston Rockets for 32 points and 13 rebounds on 67% shooting from the field.

I’m going to tell you how that dominant performance helped the Rockets win the game.

Small Ball

At 6’5”, PJ Tucker is the smallest “center” in the league. After the trade of Clint Capela and release of Isaiah Hartenstein, the Rockets have no player in the rotation above 6’9” (sorry, Tyson). 

The main purpose of Daryl Morey’s idea of mega small ball was to gain spacing on offense for Westbrook to thrive. Earlier, with two non-shooting starters on a volume shooting team, the Rockets lacked enough consistent perimeter threats. Now, though, without Capela clogging up the paint, Westbrook – the only remaining non-shooter in the starting lineup – has an easier ability to drive to the rim or kick it out to an open shooter.

Take a look at how much room he has off the dribble here:

Our own Itamar Roitman wrote more about Westbrook’s role and improved play here.

But there has been a secondary, more nuanced benefit to small ball…

Small ball doesn’t just change the way the Rockets play. It also changes the way that the opposition plays against the Rockets. Or, more specifically, the newly perceived interior dominance of which other teams feel they must take advantage. 

Since the switch to small ball, PJ Tucker has been the subject of many memes. Fans are lining up, waiting for the day when their starting center will get the chance to take on the microscopic Houston Rockets. It makes sense – after all, how is a 6’5” PJ Tucker possibly supposed to keep up with some of the massive big men out West every single night? 

On one level, there is the fact that he is not alone. The Rockets have some of the league’s most versatile defenders, which allows them to switch everything on defense. Tucker is the “center”, but that doesn’t mean he’s guarding the opposing center every play. At his disposal is newcomer Robert Covington, who has already more than proved his worth on defense, as well as Jeff Green, DeMarre Carroll, and Eric Gordon, among other capable defenders. 

Even James Harden – who was once crucified for his lack of defensive effort – has proven to be a plus defender in spots. Per NBA.com stats, Harden limits his opponents to just 43% shooting as an isolation defender. And in terms of post defense, he ranks in the 95th percentile. Opposing players are shooting just 26.8% against him on post-ups.

But I’m not as interested in talking about the value of a switching defense. Instead, I’m more interested in talking about how the size disadvantage alters the play style of opposing teams – specifically, the Lakers. 

Lakers Big Men

After the offseason trade for Anthony Davis, the Lakers established perhaps the most dominant frontcourt in the NBA. With AD, along with JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard on career and bounce back years respectively, the Lakers routinely beat up on teams down low.

Before I get to AD and his game against the Rockets, I want to first focus on McGee and Howard. While a lot of the Lakers’ success this season has been because of these two players, much of that can mainly be attributed to their aggression and athleticism; what I mean to say is that it is not as if the Lakers are ever running plays for these guys. Both big men have a usage rate under 15%, well below league average.

Against the Rockets, though, things changed.

The February 6 matchup vs Houston was the first time that league saw small ball in full effect. With the addition of RoCo and departure of Capela, no one really knew what to expect. Five plus months removed, I wanted to go back and re-watch some of the game to see how the Lakers decided to attack the small ball Rockets.

And other than win a jump ball over a 6’5” guy with a large beard, the McGee-Howard tandem were a giant negative. Rather than maintain their roles, McGee and Howard tried to become offensive focal points.

Two players who had spent the entire season as supporting players suddenly wanted to take the spotlight. Rather than run the court and do the dirty work, both McGee and Howard – in their limited minutes – repeatedly called for the ball in the post. This led to either turnovers or just plain clunky offense.

Howard usage rate jumped to a whopping 30%!!

It was as if the sheer smallness of the Rockets led the two to believe that they were about to have the games of their careers.

On defense, the quicker Rockets simply just drove past them on nearly every single possession. With five guards/floor spacers on the court at all times for the Rockets, the Lakers couldn’t realistically have either of their centers play effective minutes. Seriously – who was Dwight Howard expected to guard?

Overall, both players were pulled from the game after having played just a combined twenty minutes – far, far below their season average.

This was a good marker for small ball; two big, opposing centers – who each tried to take over – were unable to stay on the court. The Rockets were not as vulnerable to size as some people thought they might have been.

AD Against the Rockets

Gary A. Vasquez – USA TODAY Sports

However, the Lakers still had Anthony Davis – a superstar and probably the best big man in the league. He’s no JaVale McGee. Of course he was going to get his in a game in which the Lakers planned to take it inside as much as possible.

But with McGee and Howard rendered useless, AD had to turn to center. Traditionally, Davis prefers playing power forward. This role helps him because there is relatively less defensive attention focused on him if there are multiple big guys in the paint. If he’s playing at center, though, teams are more likely to double him inside because there is no other impactful power forward on the roster.

Despite all that, Anthony Davis had a field day vs the Rockets. There’s no denying it. He beat up on all of the smaller defenders that were thrown at him.

But if he was able to play so well and feast on the tiny Rockets like everyone said he would…

Why did the Lakers lose the game? 

There are a number of different ways to answer that question – Covington’s strong debut and Westbrook’s 41 points seem like good enough reasons – but I would argue that the Lakers lost the game because of Anthony Davis’s huge night. 

I know, I know – counterintuitive. But bear with me. 

Let’s take a look at one of AD’s buckets:

Here, Davis makes a strong finish at the top of the key to give the Lakers a two point lead. Cool.

But the Rockets are going to live with this play. First off, it’s just not a high percentage shot; Davis is actually only a 45.5% shooter on post-up plays, which is below league average among qualifying players. Further, Harden shows that he is strong enough in the post to force a fadeaway rather than a drive to the hoop.

But more importantly, this play speaks to a larger theme of the game. The mere sight of a smaller defender almost lured the Lakers into forcing up shots, rather than work for higher percentage looks.

Matching Up With the Rockets

These two teams also met earlier in the year. The Lakers won the game despite an injury to Anthony Davis. 

How did they do it?

The answer: a heavy dosage of LeBron James and perimeter shooting. The guys that beat the Rockets that night – Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, even Kyle Kuzma – all did it from outside the paint (save a few annoyingly effective drives from KCP). The Rockets simply had no answer for them. 

A large part of this was pace. During the game, the Lakers played at a significantly faster pace compared to their yearly average. In the titular February 6 matchup, though, the Lakers played at a comparatively slower pace.

The Rockets are fourth in the league in pace and lead the league in three pointers made and attempted by a wide margin. In other words, they score a lot and they do it quickly. The Rockets – through their roster construction and play style – have made it so that they can out score pretty much any team in the league. Therefore, opposing teams need to, well, keep up.

In their win back in January, the Lakers did just that. By having LeBron consistently run the floor and look for open shooters, the Lakers were able to counteract the Rockets’ speed and quickness.

3 > 2. That’s always been the Rockets’ philosophy. And that philosophy has only been compounded by the trade for Robert Covington. If the Rockets are going to shoot and make a lot of threes, opposing teams are almost forced to follow suit. Those with an ability to head to the perimeter and beat you from the outside have a better shot against the fast-paced, volume shooting Rockets. 

But as I mentioned above, small ball works twofold. Not only does it help the Rockets create spacing on offense, it also changes the way that opposing teams feel they need to play against the Rockets.

Before the tipoff of the February 6 matchup, announcer Chris Webber had this to say: “Look for the Lakers to try and lay up everything tonight with no shot blockers on the floor for the Rockets.” 

Now lacking any height, then, the game plan against the Rockets took a total 180. AD got his, but it came at the cost of a much slower pace and a consistently set Rockets defense. All of this contributed to a Houston win, as the Lakers had no backup plan with the game on the line late fourth quarter.

Post Up, Post Up, Post Up

That’s why the Lakers strategy was faulty. Davis had an awesome night, but he is capable of putting up that 32/13 line against any team. It’s not as if the small size of the Rockets simply unlocked his full capability. Anthony Davis is a superstar and has had similarly dominant games against bigger teams. 

But what the small size of the Rockets did unlock was a repetitive Lakers game plan…Get the ball to Anthony Davis and hope that he can get a bucket over a shorter defender.

Eventually, the Rockets were able to find ways to double and slow him down:

Because Davis takes so much time getting in to position for the shot, Covington is able to slide over for the block. Covington makes a great play on the ball, but the play is set up by the transparency of the Lakers offense. Everyone on the floor knew that when AD touched the ball near the paint, he was going to find a way to shoot. 

Let’s take a look at another play:

Here, Rondo and the Lakers are so eager to bully the Rockets inside that they try and force the ball into the paint rather than work it around for a better shot attempt. AD calls for the ball because – like usual – he’s being guarded by a smaller defender. Even though he is not really open at all, the Lakers do whatever they can to exploit a perceived mismatch. The lazy, unassuming pass leads to a turnover and a fast break bucket for the Rockets.

Here’s one last example:

The big thing to note on this play is defensive spacing. Even though the double team never ends up having to come, every Rockets defender is sagging off of their opponent on the perimeter. They are all in prime position to offer weak side help if need be.

They have this ability because they know that Davis is going to try to exploit his matchup no matter what. No other Laker on the court will be touching the ball once AD gets to his spot just inside the elbow. Therefore, if he does get around PJ Tucker, the Rockets will have plenty of help defense available to potentially slow him down (in this case, he is unable to get around PJ and throws up an errant layup attempt).

Even though Anthony Davis ended up scoring a lot and scoring efficiently, he disrupted the flow of the Lakers’ offense. Their best player is LeBron James – one of the best facilitators in league history; by repeatedly taking the ball out of his hands throughout the game and instead putting it in the hands of Anthony Davis, the Lakers had a smaller margin for error and a lesser ability to get consistent, open shot attempts.

Now I’m not saying that the Lakers match up better with the Rockets without Anthony Davis. Of course not. He’s a superstar that the Rockets will have to spend a ton of time planning for in a potential playoff series. But what I am saying is that AD’s presence in the lineup gave the Lakers the sense that the best way to beat the Rockets was to just give the ball to the big guy and let him try to pound his way inside every time down the court. 

The size advantage led to the belief that any shot attempt in the post was a good shot attempt, regardless of whether or not they were actually open. Instead, the Lakers would be better served having multiple plans to attack the Rockets – rather than just rely on their height.

In year’s past, the Rockets have traditionally dominated teams with big centers in the playoffs. Karl Anthony-Towns and Rudy Gobert are names that immediately come to mind. Sure, a lot of that was from Clint Capela’s athleticism and his ability to run the court – but it’s not as if the Rockets have lost any athleticism or quickness. Daryl Morey has done well to find guys like DeMarre Carroll and Jeff Green to fill in the defensive void left behind. The only thing that they have tangibly lost is the mere presence and notation on the score sheet of a traditional center. 

And in the end, all that has really changed is one thing: how opponents think they need to play to beat the Rockets. 

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