Rockets

Optimism Should Remain Despite Houston’s Game 2 Loss

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There is always going to be a challenge playing against LeBron James.

Many said the Houston Rockets are too small to compete against the “giant” Los Angeles Lakers. Through the first two games of the Western Conference Semifinals, however, the Houston Rockets have fared rather well. Houston opened the series with an extremely convincing 112-97 victory in Game 1. Although they suffered a 109-117 Game 2 loss, there should still be an abundance of confidence and optimism in that locker room. After a poor first half, the Rockets showed the type of team that could definitely win this series.

Let’s reflect on the positives and examine possible adjustments to make heading into Game 3.

Defense

The Rockets defended well in Game 1, pushing the pace and forcing the Lakers to knock down perimeter shots. Houston won the battle in the paint 42-40 while limiting Los Angeles’ rebounding opportunities, knotting at 41 a piece. These are two crucial focal points when playing against the Lakers.

In Game 2, Los Angeles had a field day, outscoring Houston 54-26 in the paint. Lakers head coach Frank Vogel made changes to his rotation, going small and playing Anthony Davis primarily at center. LA definitely increased their pace to run on the break more and force Houston to play transition defense. The Rockets had 17 turnovers and they paid for it, providing the Lakers with easy opportunities in transition. Forcing Los Angeles into a half-court offense will limit opportunities in transition, forcing them to take more outside shots. LeBron and Co. shot 44.4% from three in this game, up from 33.3% before Game 2. Markieff Morris was 4-of-5 from three– a rare feat unlikely to be replicated.

Houston lost the rebound battle in Game 2, but only by six (41-35). Limiting turnovers will create better offensive flow for Houston and limit Los Angeles’ opportunities to punish them in the paint. This mostly starts with Russell Westbrook– as he was completely out of control.

Russell Westbrook’s Struggles

Westbrook had a revelation in his overall efficiency with joining the Rockets and their commitment to small-ball this season. He averaged 27.2 points, 7.9 rebounds and 7.0 assists per game on career-highs 47.2% shooting from the field and 51.4% from inside the arc.

Since then, however, it hasn’t been so smooth. A lingering hamstring injury forced him to miss Houston’s first four games against the Oklahoma City Thunder, possibly disturbing his rhythm. After five playoff games this postseason, he has averaged 15.6 points (career-low), 8.2 rebounds and 4.4 assists (career-low) per game. He is shooting just 39.1% overall and 16.7% and 46.7% from three and the stripe, respectively (both career-lows).

In Game 1 against the Lakers, he played well, tallying 24 points, nine rebounds and six assists. He followed that up with an atrocious shooting display of 4-of-15 from the field, 1-of-7 from three, 1-of-3 from the stripe, all while adding seven turnovers.

Westbrook needs to be in attack mode. He needs to stay poised driving to the hoop and take mid-range shots to keep the Laker defense honest. They’ve baited and dared him into shooting three’s– it worked in Game 2.

Westbrook was acquired to ease the offensive burden off Harden’s shoulders. The Lakers did a great job double-teaming Harden, forcing the ball out of his hands in which many shooters were open and knocking down shots. It makes Westbrook’s presence useless if he is constantly taking three’s and playing out of control, because it makes Houston that much easier to defend. Regardless, other players have stepped up still giving Houston a great chance at triumph in this series, most notably, Eric Gordon.

X-Factor: Eric Gordon

Gordon looks very healthy and has been tremendous starting from Game 7 against the Thunder, where he scored 21 points on 6-of-11 shooting, 5-of-9 from three, and 4-of-4 from the stripe. In this series, he has averaged 23.5 points on 50% FG, 45% 3PT, and 80% FT. Being tasked with defending LeBron, he has done a commendable job, despite the size differential. In Game 2, he was really imposing his will knocking down shots from all over, especially his 6-of-12 from three.

He has served his role well as the third option on this team. He is — and will continue to be — the key to supplying Harden and Westbrook with another creator when playing with both of them or just one.

Consistent Three-Point Shooting

Through the first two games, the Rockets shot a combined 39.1% from beyond the arc, but they still connected on 22-of-53 (41.5%) from deep in Game 2. Houston has to continue to force LA to defend them on the perimeter. When guys are hitting shots at a high-enough clip, this opens up lanes for Westbrook, Harden and Gordon. After being down by as many as 21, the Rockets erupted in the third quarter, outscoring the Lakers 41-23 and taking a two-point lead entering the fourth.

After that run, Houston was an abysmal 2-of-13 from three in the fourth quarter. Shooting woes like that kill any and all momentum.

The Rockets head into Game 3 tied 1-1 in the series. Game 1 was an impressive victory, similar to the Portland Trail Blazers’ Game 1 win in the first round against the Lakers. Houston has a much stronger defensive scheme and an offense that can give the Lakers problems. Game 2 was an unfortunate loss that just slipped out of Houston’s hands. Erasing a 21-point deficit from the first half and taking a two-point lead entering the fourth quarter has to create some optimism. The Rockets have to limit turnovers, consistently knock down threes, and force the Lakers to take perimeter shots. If you pair that with Westbrook finding his groove, there should be no surprise with Houston prevailing.

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About Corey Randall

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