Houston Rockets: Lakers will be the biggest test for small ball experiment

How do the Houston Rockets stack up against the Los Angeles Lakers?

The Houston Rockets doubled down on their small ball ethos at the 2020 NBA trade deadline by essentially turning Clint Capela into Robert Covington.

In the first game after the trade was official, the first with Covington on the roster, the Rockets beat the Los Angeles Lakers 121-111 and NBA Twitter was immediately claiming the trade deadline as a victory.

After all, the Rockets had just beaten one of the best big men in the league, Anthony Davis alongside two traditional big men for most of the game in Dwight Howard or JaVale McGee.

The win also kick-started a 7-2 winning streak and what was even more exciting, Russell Westbrook looked unleashed.

On offense, Westbrook was nominally playing center, being the weakest shooter on the court most of the time and it looked ideal for him. He had a clear runway to the rim most times he grabbed the ball and surrounded by shooters, he didn’t have to (or at least told himself he didn’t) jack up as many 3’s as he had been accustomed to.

We also saw the strong drive into a sharp pull-up mid-range shot disappear (momentarily, the last couple of games against the Oklahoma City Thunder saw the return. Maybe it has something to do with Thunder jersey colors?)

Houston, and Westbrook, eventually cooled off after that early 2020 stretch but the COVID-19 pandemic ended the season for all, and we didn’t get to see where they would’ve actually finished in a full regular season.

Fast forward to the current date, and since returning from his right quad injury, Russ has been less than spectacular which was highlighted in his Game 6 performance and not helped by a 9-20 Game 7 showing.

On LA’s side of things, they look great. In the playoffs, they held Portland in check on defense, and while they only won in five; their opening night loss is very excusable: Portland was coming off two huge wins against Brooklyn and Memphis in games with legitimate stakes. If you watch the Lakers preceding games, saying they weren’t playing with stakes in mind might be an understatement (Talen Horton-Tucker led their final game in minutes with 34).

But since the playoffs have started, the Lakers are back to their usual selves, leading the playoffs in points allowed per 100 possessions with Cleaning the Glass’ filter, LeBron James looks like he’s in his usual playoff form and Anthony Davis just spent most of Game 5 putting fear into the hearts of Blazers fans.

AD averaged just over 29 points for the series, shot 57 percent from the floor and 62 percent when inside the arc. Portland isn’t known for their defense, but he did it against a team that plays two traditional big men for most of the game.

Speaking of two traditional bigs, the Lakers usually run AD at the power forward position, where he logged 60 percent of his minutes according to basketball-reference.com, playing next to one of JaVale McGee or Dwight Howard. How will those supersized lineups go against PJ Tucker and Robert Covington?

In the season series between the two, Houston won two out of the three, with two games coming after the Covington trade and one late in the season where LeBron and Westbrook each didn’t play.

Zooming into the one full-strength matchup, AD played 40-plus minutes while JaVale and Dwight played a combined 20:28, down from their combined season averages of 35:30 (that number is slightly inflated as it doesn’t factor in missed games).

It was clear that head coach Frank Vogel wanted to keep the elite Davis out there for Houston’s pick-and-roll attack with James Harden, especially since he’s much more capable perimeter than the other two.

If Vogel extrapolates that same game plan out for a seven-game series against the Rockets, then they’re giving up an extra big body at the rim and giving Harden, the greatest scorer in the league an invitation to get in the paint, kick it out to the player AD’s guarding (presumably PJ Tucker in the corner) or finish himself.

But can Harden do that as well as he did in the regular season?

In the series against OKC, Harden’s critics were having a field day (or seven) with people claiming that he’s the guard version of Karl Malone – an elite level player who can’t get it done in the playoffs.

The usual issues have been there: defense gets better, referees swallow their whistles (somebody tell that to the officials for Milwaukee vs. Miami Game 2 and this past Game 7) and Harden’s typical tricks of the trade don’t work.

In Game 7, he finished with 17 points on 4-15 from the floor and 1-9 from behind the arc. With all respect to Luguentz Dort, if an undrafted rookie who legally can’t drink alcohol after he beats you is the reason an MVP and elite scorer is missing, well… I don’t know what to say apart from just be better.

Harden recognizes this.

On the other end of the court for the Rockets, how do they stop the pick-and-roll combo of LeBron and AD?

Short answer: they don’t.

With PJ Tucker undersized and not playing a traditional big body, the Rockets might get scorched by AD, one of the best pick-and-roll threats in the league.

One option I could see the Rockets turning to is blitzing this action, having the on-ball defender and “big” rushing up to LeBron, weak-side defenders rotating over to check on Davis’ roll and leaving at least one of the corners open. We’ve seen this a lot in the Miami/Milwaukee series with both teams saying ‘if your worst offensive player beats us, then let that happen’.

If I’m a betting man, I’m looking at the points line for Alex Caruso, Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and any player who will be getting big minutes and can sit in the corner. LeBron, as we know, is one of the best passers of our time and he’s more than capable of passing out of blitzes and finding open shooters (as a Golden State fan, I’ve seen it way too much).

So, on one end, there’s Houston, a smaller team that might force the Lakers to leave McGee and Dwight on the bench but will still concede good shots to tertiary players to limit the AD screening action.

And on the other end, Houston’s two stars haven’t performed at their best. If they continue this trend, there is a near-zero percent chance they’ll win. If Harden makes his shots and gets hot, while Russ is driving into an open lane and getting the other team in foul trouble, they’re a fighter’s chance and it’ll be prime viewing.

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It might seem a bit grim that Houston playing at their best isn’t even a sure thing but if Houston can do the impossible and get through LeBron, what’s to say they can’t go all the way?

The Lakers should win this and expect to see AD licking his lips every time down on offense.