Should the Lakers Go Small or Stay Big Against the Rockets?


Will The Lakers Go Small?

The final second-round matchup in the NBA playoffs is set. Houston outlasted Oklahoma City in Game 7 Wednesday night, 104-102, earning a showdown with the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers.

A question many are wondering is: Will LA go small against the Rockets?

Mike D’Antoni committed to small-ball full-time in February after the team dealt its former starting center Clint Capela to Atlanta and received wing Robert Covington from Minnesota in a four-team exchange. Since then, 6-foot-7 forward PJ Tucker has filled Capela’s role, and Houston has become notorious for shooting threes and getting to the key — nothing in between.

The Rockets play through James Harden and Russell Westbrook, relying on their penetration to ignite the offense. Once the first man is beat, the ball is either going up at the rim, if there’s no help. Or, if help comes, the ball is kicked out to the perimeter for a triple.

Houston shoots a ton of threes, for those who don’t know, nearly 46 a game. That’s the most in the league. They also make an NBA-best 16 a night. Los Angeles, on the other hand, attempts about 32 threes per contest, 21st amongst all teams. It averages 11 makes, 24th in the league, according to Team Rankings.

The Lakers haven’t relied on the long ball all season and that will not change now. They prefer to play a traditional two-big lineup with Anthony Davis and JaVale McGee or Davis and Dwight Howard. It gives them a rebounding advantage and maximizes rim protection, a big reason why LAL blocks 7.5 shots a game, the most in the NBA.

Going small could have its perks, too, however, and it’s something Frank Vogel has to be considering. A reporter recently asked shooting guard Danny Green how the Lakers should approach this series.

Let’s dive into the pluses/minuses of each style of play.

Why play small ball?

Playing Davis at the five gives the Lakers versatility on defense. Assuming either Kyle Kuzma or Markieff Morris would then start at the four, switching on defense wouldn’t hurt them as much.

This strategy is important because Harden loves to switch hunt and create mismatches on defense. It’s what the Rockets’ offense is predicated on. Imagine for a second that McGee is forced to defend the former MVP when Tucker comes and sets a screen for him. He’s toast. Or, as Shaq says, BBQ chicken.

Davis, the runner up for DPOY, is more than just a shot-blocking big. He’s shown that he can effectively defend guards throughout the season. Watch him block Harden’s shot at the 29-second mark in this clip in a matchup from earlier this year.

Going small would also open up the offense for the Lakers. James and Davis could run pick-and-rolls without McGee clogging the lane. If AD chooses to hover along the perimeter, James can also create switches, penetrate and either get to the rack or kick the ball out to shooters.

However, if Davis stays around the paint, he can post up the smaller Rockets defenders, who will be at a disadvantage. The superstar forward is coming off a dominant first-round performance against the Blazers, where he averaged 29.8 points, 9.4 rebounds and 4.2 assists in just under 33 minutes a game. That was against the likes of true big men in Jusuf Nurkic, Hassan Whiteside and Wenyen Gabriel — players around Davis’ size.

Imagine what Davis can do with some space against Tucker, Covington, and whoever else is tasked with defending the soon-to-be All-NBA First-Team player.

AD won’t be playing all the minutes. He can’t. Having McGee or Howard on the court still provides the Lakers with some rim protection, however. That’s essential against Houston.

Why stay big?

The Lakers don’t have to play small just because the Rockets do. Size matters, after all. And LA has a clear advantage when it comes to that department with guys like the aforementioned Davis, Howard and McGee.

Two bigs on the court mean a lot of length. This size can result in deflected passes, contested jumpers, blocked shots, and a rebounding edge. I can live with Harden taking step-back threes over one of my centers’ outstretched hands if I’m Vogel. The problems begin when The Beard gets past one of them or baits them into fouling him on a jumper.

The Lakers will just have to hope their bigs can stay disciplined enough to stay on their feet.

Offensively, playing two bigs allows for interior passing and high-percentage looks in the paint. This plays in the Lakers’ favor with Davis’ passing ability, as seen here (second clip).

I expect Vogel to start with his usual starting lineup of James, Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Davis and McGee. But I also expect to see spurts with AD at the five as we saw against Portland.

There are advantages and disadvantages to whether the Lakers play big or small. What I’m expecting is for Vogel to make the right adjustments and lineup changes when necessary. Doubling Harden as early as Game 1 Friday is plausible, as LAL threw two bodies at Damian Lillard throughout the first round.

This series has superstar appeal and should entertain, but it will be short-lived for the Lakers opponent just like the opening round.

Prediction: Los Angeles in 5

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About Sandeep Chandok

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