Los Angeles Lakers vs. Houston Rockets: Two big questions that could decide the series

Two big questions for the Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets

The Western Conference Semifinals matchup between the fourth-seeded Houston Rockets and the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers kicks off on Friday, so let’s preview the series, beginning with the two core questions that will determine the outcome.

What James Harde are we going to get?

The seven-game clash with the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round will always be remembered as the Luguentz Dort series, but James Harden had the rookie figured out in Games 5 and 6. Then, in Game 7, he looked completely listless. It got to the point where he wouldn’t even attack Dennis Schröder and Nerlens Noel on switches.

Houston’s entire offensive system is built around James Harden chewing up and spitting out these kinds of players, and the Lakers don’t have any guards with Dort’s set of physical attributes (Danny Green has lost a step and is foul-prone, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope doesn’t have the size or strength). Harden still has the potential to be the best player in this series should he somehow regain his magic. This would give Houston the upper-hand, as Los Angeles’ only answer would perhaps be the old double-teaming strategy.

If Harden can’t find his touch, however, then it’s going to be a slog like we saw in the Oklahoma City series. Mike D’Antoni will always have solutions, like using the guards as screeners, but the Rockets just don’t have the rim-threats (no centers) or the on-ball decision-makers around him to punish this Lakers defense. Given how he looks physically right now, combined with the short turn-around from Game 7, it seems pretty unlikely that we get peak-James Harden game after game.

How long will the Lakers stay big?

The Lakers’ formula of playing two non-Anthony Davis centers (Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee) in the rotation has worked for them all year long. This provides different challenges against Houston. Offensively, it could go either way. The Rockets rely on sound positioning and physicality to hold their own in the paint. Howard and McGee (and Davis), however, offer a level of springiness that could give Houston fits. Unlike Steven Adams, they can actually elevate more than six inches off the ground for lobs and offensive rebounds.

On the other hand, the lack of spacing (Howard and McGee can’t shoot outside the restricted area) is really going to put pressure on LeBron James to create passing windows out of thin air. Houston has some of the most incredible help defenders in the league, and they will surely muck everything up for Los Angeles. They will likely even roam off of some of the other questionable Lakers shooters like Alex Caruso and Rajon Rondo (if he plays).

Defensively, this alignment may be able to work, so long as Harden doesn’t go nuclear. Davis spent plenty of time matched up on Russell Westbrook – whose atrophied jumper makes him somewhat a big man at this point. P.J. Tucker provides another hiding spot with him being ice-cold from the corners.

The Lakers will likely coincide plenty of catch and shoot opportunities anyway – but the juicer stuff will be harder to come by for Houston (Harden is reluctant to dribble-drive with two rim-protectors on the floor, and the Lakers trapping/blitzing was highly effective against Portland’s guards in the first-round). An area where they could be hurt is in transition – all of Houston’s switching results in cross-matches which could cause confusion for Howard/McGee.

Things will change if the Lakers choose to deviate from their identity and go smaller with Davis at center. The issue is the Los Angles isn’t really built to play this way. LeBron could theoretically go matchup hunting and spray the ball to shooters like his Cleveland days, but who exactly on this team is knocking down shots? Downsizing would likely help on the other end, as they could switch more to stifle Houston’s driving and kicking.

I’m inclined to favor Houston in this series. We’ve seen time and time again that you beat their small lineup with speedy ball-handlers, not inside-out play. They will live with Anthony Davis face-up jumpers out of isolation. And due to the switching, LeBron James isn’t going to be able to pick them apart as he does with any normal rotating defense. Houston will force him, James, to beat them as a scorer, and I’m not sure he has that in him anymore at this stage of his career.

That said, the fast break opportunities will be critical. We already touched on it from Houston’s perspective, but Harden and Westbrook tend to greatly exaggerate their follow-throughs on jumpers. The Lakers will surely look to leak out on those, and LeBron has no hesitancy to launch 50-foot outlets – they were the best transition offense in the league for a reason.

It was quite alarming how much the previous series was a struggle for Houston, though. Harden and Westbrook tend to falter when things get tight. Perhaps it will be a breath of fresh air not seeing Lu Dort possession after possession. The stakes will likely never be greater again for either of them, and I look forward to seeing how they respond.

Pick: Rockets in 7