Article Written by Jackson Gatlin (@JTGatlin) with contributions from Justin Barbosa (@Jbarbosa_95), Brit Wilbert (@britrobotista), Dex Hinton (@DexHinton), Tyler Jones (@tjjszn), Tamer Knight (@tknightsports), and Lachard Binkley (@HTOWN4LIFE40).
Having narrowly survived their first round series in a 104-102 Game 7 win against the Oklahoma City Thunder thanks to a game-saving, legacy-defining block by James Harden, the Houston Rockets are on their way to a star-studded second round matchup with LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the No. 1 seeded Los Angeles Lakers.
Beard vs. Bron.
Brodie vs. Brow.
DMC vs. KCP.
Okay, that last one was a joke, but I’m sure it would make DMC-hive president Roosh Williams unreasonably happy.
This series is sure to bring about many philosophical questions and arguments regarding the legitimacy of Rockets small-ball and how it stacks up against a more traditional approach to the game by the Lakers, so let’s hear some thoughts from the Clutch City Control Room contributors as we all eagerly anticipate Game 1 of Harden and Westbrook’s superstar clash with LeBron and Davis.
How is Houston’s roster better equipped to deal with LA than it was OKC?
Justin Barbosa: The Lakers do not have defenders that are going to give James Harden fits like Lu Dort did, and they also don’t have reliable go-to options besides LeBron and AD (maybe Kuzma), whereas OKC had big games from Schröder and SGA. LA’s role players are mostly spot up shooters that can’t create their own shot, this gives the Rockets more of a competitive edge on the defensive end, although the rebounding department is going to be difficult with AD/McGee/Howard looming in the middle.
Brit Wilbert: The roster for the Rockets this season was built to contain the center dominant Lakers team. Unlike in the first round where PJ Tucker and Robert Covington were unable to contain the faster guard trio of Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Dennis Schröder, they will be able to compromise the Lakers rotation of bigs by utilizing their wing strengths.
Of course LeBron James and Anthony Davis will be a difficult matchup for any team to cover, and cannot be underestimated. However the Rockets focus won’t be to necessarily stop both players. Their goal is to limit the impact of rotational players like Danny Green, Alex Caruso, Javale McGee and Dwight Howard. If they can do that and receive contributions from their own rotation, the Rockets will be able to compete well versus the Lakers.
Dex Hinton: As the series with the Thunder went on, the Rockets’ defenders struggled with the quickness of OKC’s primary ballhandlers and their 3-guard lineup. The Lakers haven’t had guard play to that level this season and the Rockets should be better able to hold their own in isolation on switches on the perimeter in the 2nd round. Where Covington or Tucker could be caught flat-footed by Dennis Schröder, Chris Paul, or SGA they should be able to stay in front of their assignments with the Lakers.
Tyler Jones: Contrary to popular belief among the national NBA crowd, the Rockets 7-8 man small-ball playoff rotation is much better at defending offenses reliant on forwards and big men than it is at limiting smaller guards who attack from the perimeter. The effectiveness of Chris Paul and Dennis Schröder are notable pieces of evidence to this trend, but large portions of the NBA community will continue to post memes at PJ Tucker and Robert Covington’s expense regarding their impending matchup with Anthony Davis.
Tamer Knight: The Rockets shocked the world after a nail-biting Game 7 to seal the series over Oklahoma City Thunder. It’s debatable that the Rockets had a bench full of ammo over OKC. Going into Round 2 against the Los Angeles Lakers, the Rockets will have their bench to help offensively, but even more defensively. The Lakers may also have a hard time guarding James Harden and his vicious step back. If LA focuses too much of their attention on Harden, that leaves room for Russell Westbrook to operate at the rim and generate quality looks for shooters.
Lachard Binkley: With the Rockets switching defense it causes teams to play more isolation. It goes all the way back to the Warriors series where it took them out of their crisp ball movement and made them play one-on-one. It will do the same to the Lakers who don’t have a roster full of isolation players. Also, the Rockets can spread the court making the Lakers adjust by taking their center off the court.
Who will have a better series, James Harden or Russell Westbrook?
Justin: This should be a breakout series for Harden. No more Lu Dort, he should be ready to feast, plus he always brings it versus LeBron, going (6-3) in head-to-head matchups since the 2014-15 season.
Brit: Russell Westbrook. His ingenuity around the paint, serving along with PJ Tucker and Robert Covington as the rebounders for the series, should allow for the Rockets to neutralize the Lakers length. In addition, the Lakers will likely be focused on preventing Harden from scoring, using Danny Green and/or Alex Caruso as a “Lu Dort” stand-in. Russell will need to take that to his advantage and execute well in the one-on-one matchups that he will be up against.
Dex: James Harden. Without a primary defender nearly as tough or as persistent as Lu Dort I think Harden will find a rhythm early in the series and be able to maintain it. Russ can and should still have an excellent series as well but I think Harden will be more efficient and have a higher scoring output.
Tyler: James Harden will have the better series. After 6 games of being hounded by Lu Dort, Harden should feel like a weight has been lifted off of his shoulders when he takes the court and is guarded by guys like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Danny Green. It seems ridiculous to say this about an undrafted rookie, but Dort’s unique ability to stymie Harden should deliver us a new and improved Harden forged from a particularly difficult first round series.
Tamer: Typically, one would want to remain optimistic and argue that both will produce to get their team to the Western Conference Finals. However, if I had to pick, I would choose Russell Westbrook to step in and intervene the most in round two.
He missed the majority of the first round, so he’s going to come into this with a redemption mindset. He wants to prove himself. He joined Houston (and his BFF Harden) with hopes to bring a championship back to the city. I certainly think he will come into this round with intentions to be better.
Lachard: I think it will be split actually. Harden tends to dominate earlier in the series usually the first four games. With Westbrook still working his way back, I think the longer this series goes the more dominant he will be in Games 5-7.
Does the poor clutch execution of the Rockets in their three playoff losses warrant concern?
Justin: Yes, the Rockets had the game within their reach in three losses, but the pressure and inability to hit crucial high percentage baskets in crunch time is concerning, especially when Lebron and AD have to the ability to get to the basket with ease. The Rockets need to take and hit open baskets and attack the rim, living and dying by the three in the clutch could be fatal this series.
Brit: Yes, it is definitely a concern moving forward as the Rockets go deeper into the playoffs. One of the biggest issues the Rockets have faced this season has been teams getting last minute clutch baskets or shots that led to costly losses for the Rockets. Although the Rockets were able to mostly avoid this problem post-Robert Covington trade, this pattern of close losses restarting again will be a major issue if it’s not quickly corrected.
However, the one notable part of the three losses was that the cause of the losses (mostly mental errors resulting in key turnovers) are correctable issues and not just because of a more talented roster being against the Rockets. The Rockets will need to ensure that they keep committed to reducing the number of turnovers and poor possessions to prevent LeBron and Anthony Davis from exploiting them for easy points.
Dex: It’s concerning but I don’t think the Lakers have players who will execute at the level OKC did down the stretch. OKC was the best clutch team and the best comeback team all season. The Rockets were able to survive them and they should be able to survive the Lakers as well.
Tyler: The Rockets clutch performance is extremely concerning, especially when matching up with a team anchored by LeBron James. Fortunately for Houston, much of their clutch time success or failure comes down to the performance of two former MVPs, so if you believe in those two guys there is a relatively simple path to improvement. Russ and Harden must reach a new level when the lights are brightest.
Tamer: Absolutely. The Rockets cannot play the Lakers with the same momentum they played with OKC. They are going to have to hustle to outdo Lebron James and his squad. During round one, there was no reason that the Rockets should have allowed OKC to come back and tie the series. There were several occasions where OKC outplayed the Rockets and we heard Head Coach Mike D’Antoni speak on this during press conferences. If they allow the Lakers to get two games ahead, there’s no coming back.
Lachard: No because in the biggest game of the year the Rockets were actually the more clutch team. Also, the Rockets have been one of the more clutch teams on defense all year long. I really believe the Rockets were playing tight all series. A team they know they should beat and started to press. This series I think we will see a more free Rockets team that will play better in the clutch.
Which Rockets role player will have the largest impact on the series?
Justin: Robert Covington. He had a slow start against OKC, but he was huge in Games 6 & 7 shooting 60% from deep, and his defense to close the series was stellar, which included huge blocks at the rim and intercepting passes in the lane, a combined 8 steals and 6 blocks across the final two games of the series.
Brit: Robert Covington will likely be the key player who will be focused on LeBron James and Anthony Davis (along with PJ Tucker), and after a breakout Game 7 versus the Thunder he’s positioned to make that impact.
Unlike in the Thunder series where he had a hard time keeping up with the fast guard lineup, Covington’s strength in defending wings and centers will be in full display versus an veteran Lakers team who will be focused on slowing down the pace against the Rockets. Covington will need to continue his improved 3-point shooting stroke as well as his paint defense to prevent the Lakers from dominating the interior. If he can do that the Rockets will be closer to securing the series win.
Dex: Jeff Green. If Green can be a consistent scoring threat and pressure release valve for James Harden, the Lakers will have a lot more questions than answers for the #mathproblem.
Tyler: Unequivocally P.J. Tucker. Tucker will be tasked with guarding Anthony Davis for the large majority of the Rockets second round series, but arguably even more important than his defensive role, Tucker must be able to punish L.A.’s reliance on traditional centers by knocking down the high volume of corner threes the small-ball offense provides to him.
Tamer: Eric Gordon. When Gordon stepped up due to the absence of Russell Westbrook, he was a key factor in the first two wins for Houston. He didn’t win Sixth Man of the Year during the 2016-2017 season for nothing! The guy is an all-around star whether he’s starting or playing off the bench. Even in Game 7, we saw him step up when Harden couldn’t seem to find his rhythm.
Lachard: As much as I would love to say Jeff Green, to me its Eric Gordon. After Harden and Westbrook, Gordon is the other player on the Rockets who can get you 30 points and completely take over a game. Last game Gordon finally found his 3-point stroke and if he is on that makes all the difference in the world for the Rockets.
Rockets greatest strength in this matchup? Weakness?
Justin: Russell Westbrook, as he has been a matchup nightmare for the Lakers, averaging 38 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 6 assists on 63 percent shooting in two games earlier this season. Small-ball has been a huge advantage for the Rockets against the Lakers, going 2-0, where the Rockets force LA’s big men to guard the perimeter, and that leaves room for Russ to attack each time.
Weaknesses include defensive lapses after going on an offensive run, rebounding, and cold spells offensively.
Brit: The greatest strength for the Rockets is their ability to space the court along with their speed. The Lakers will attempt to slow down the ball, similar to what the Thunder did last series. The Rockets have to take their speed to their advantage to punish the Lakers front court.
The greatest weakness for the Rockets will be the Lakers potential rebounding advantage. Although the Rockets are motivated to allow opposing teams to win the rebounding battle in exchange for speed, the Rockets must continue to minimize that disadvantage as much as possible on the offensive end of the court.
Dex: The Rockets’ greatest strength will be their switching defense. When executed properly, switching forces teams to slow down and play isolation basketball which the Lakers are not very well-equipped to do.
Their greatest weakness will be their carelessness with the ball. Turnovers and empty trips leading to transition points for the Lakers will quickly add up if the Rockets are not careful.
Tyler: The Rockets greatest strength in this series is their extreme advantage in guard play. The Lakers guard rotation was scant even at the beginning of this year’s season, but Avery Bradley’s withdrawal from bubble play is one of the more understated storylines of this series. The Lakers remaining guards provide very little shot creation offensively and have yet to prove they can slow down James Harden and Russell Westbrook given the Rockets success in the regular season.
As far as weaknesses go, without digging into the inherent difficulty of playing against LeBron or a Los Angeles team in the playoffs [Scott Foster intensifies], the Rockets just need Eric Gordon to be better. Before Game 7, Gordon was posting an abominable percentage from three and seemed likely to make at least one catastrophic mistake in every close game between the two teams. If Houston wants a chance in this series Gordon has to be a legitimate floor spacer from distance and, in plain terms, a smarter player in the clutch.
Tamer: Some of their strength going into this series against the Lakers will be having that bench full of ammo. When key players don’t step up, the Rockets have their bench to fall back on. They are also a really good shooting team from behind the arc.
However, this can become one of their weaknesses because when the shots aren’t falling it has cost them many games. Also, the Lakers aren’t playing small-ball and have a massive team that will walk all over the Rockets if they let them. Every possession is going to count, and they are going to have play good defense the entire game.
Lachard: The Rocket’s greatest strength is their ability to spread the floor. Even though Portland has shooters they also play big. This allowed the Lakers to keep their bigs on the floor. The Rockets will force the Lakers as they have in two previous wins to change their rotation and take their bigs off the floor especially in the fourth quarter.
Their biggest weakness has been foul trouble. If the Lakers are able to get the ball in the paint enough they can get the Rockets in foul trouble early and often as we saw against the Thunder.
Justin: Rockets in 6.
Brit: Rockets in 6
Dex: Rockets in 6
Tyler: Rockets in 6
Tamer: Lakers in 7
Lachard: Rockets in 7
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