After watching Game 1 of the Western Conference Semi Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets my knee jerk reaction was to not panic. I mean, this team lost the first game against the Portland Trailblazers in the first round, right? Losing one game in a seven game series isn’t ideal, but it’s also not that big a deal. The Lakers are the #1 seed and the Rockets, as presently constructed, have a history of not doing great in the playoffs. So, I tweeted this.
If you can look past the typo, you can see my very obvious lack of concern. Then, almost immediately, I started to re-think that tweet. I decided it might be best to sleep on this before writing down any more thoughts about this game. After a good nights sleep and time to dig into this, I’m concerned.
These Lakers are in trouble.
Now, that doesn’t mean they will lose the series. I have them moving on in six games. At worst, it may go seven. But, this will not be an easy series for them and there is a chance, albeit a small one, that the Rockets actually beat the Lakers. Why the sudden shift? Well, it’s based on my ignorance of the Houston Rockets, as presently constructed.
Years ago, one one the reasons I stopped writing for a prominent sports site was because they asked me to write about the Houston Rockets. I started writing for that site to cover the Los Angeles teams. Being from the LA area, appreciating great basketball and having a history as a fan for both LA professional NBA teams, my focus was very singular. I am not from Houston, don’t particularly like their style of play and have no history with the Rockets. Given those fact, I politely declined and soon there after left that site.
I write because I enjoy it and have some knowledge of the teams I write about. While I certainly understand that in order to make a living at this one would have to acquiesce to such demands, I am not looking to pay the bills doing this (although, that would be very, very nice), I just really love doing it! So, getting this article back on track, I just don’t know the Rockets all that well.
I know they traded Clint Capela, a very good, serviceable, defensive minded center who you do not have to draw up plays for, to the Atlanta Hawks and went all in with “small ball”. When you look at what the NBA is today, that move made sense. They wanted a team made up of shooters and were willing to give up some rebounds and defense if it meant more points from three.
After all, three > two.
The Current Rockets
The problem is that these Rockets, the ones that beat the Lakers in game 1 of the WCSF, are actually pretty good defensively. If you are like me and havent really followed the Rockets, that claim may come as a surprise. In fact, it may shock you. Shock you to the point of calling me a liar. Which, I would understand. I would feel the same way. But according to stats.nba.com the current number one ranked playoff team when it comes to defensive rating is, the Houston Rockets.
It is true that they rank near the bottom of that list in every rebounding category, but they lead in steals per game and three pointers made. In short, you have a Rockets team that makes shots from deep, will steal the ball from you about 10 times per game and can lock you down better than anyone still playing when they need to.
So, ya, the Lakers are in some trouble.
These Rockets are not the Trailblazers. This team can shot, which everyone knew, but now they can actually defend, which some – me included – did not know. The lock down defense was in display as the Rockets advanced to this round against the OKC Thunder, In that game, with only seconds left, James Harden slid to the side of Lou Dort and blocked his three point shot! If the game is close at the end, these Rockets now play defense and do it very well!
Yes, the Lakers are in trouble, but all is not lost.
The Lakers continue to have a height advantage on these Rockets. Players like JaVale McGee, Dwight Howard and most of all, Anthony Davis, are going to have to make an effort to concentrate on rebounding and playing in the paint. The most shocking stat to come out of game 1 was rebounding. The undersized Houston Rockets tied the Lakers in rebounding, 41 to 41. The Rockets actually had more offensive rebounds than the Lakers, 37 to 31!
That cannot happen, but see, that is where the Rockets get you. If you play McGee or Howard for long stretches they are dominated on the defense end because most bigs do not like to, or simply can’t guard players out by the three point line. Essentially, the Rockets are willing to give up the potential rebounds to players like McGee and Howard for more open looks from three. More open looks of course, means more makes which means, of course, less rebounds to be had. That strategy worked in game 1, obviously.
McGee played 13 mins while Howard played only 11.
The adjustment Coach Frank Vogel and staff have to make now is to decide who is going to play the center position in a way that gets them rebounds without giving up defense. Anthony Davis did his part with 14 rebounds, but he has to do more. Another option is Markeiff Morris who at 6’8″ is taller than the Rockets starting center, Robert Covington, and he shoots almost 39% from three point range this season. Morris only saw 9 minutes of action in game 1.
Basketball is a game of runs in-game and a game of adjustments between games. The ball is now in Coach Vogel’s court. Will he make the necessary adjustments to give his team a chance to win. If he does, the Lakers will advance. If not, they are in for a very real battle.