Amid the unlikeliest playoffs in living memory, ones played within an experimental safe haven, as a global pandemic and its cascading effects continue to ravage the United States beyond the NBA’s Orlando bubble, the Western Conference semifinals have produced a decidedly likely matchup.
The Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets, two star-powered teams whose inclusion in the Finals contender discussion has been near-unassailable since the pre-season, will race to four wins for the chance to face either the Los Angeles Clippers or Denver Nuggets. But their presence in the contenders conversation should not be mistaken for taking a smooth, dominant road to this point in the post-season.
Houston required seven games to dispatch the Oklahoma City Thunder — a team written off by many before the season began — in a series whose final, chaos-filled moments will be remembered for a James Harden block on Canadian Luguentz Dort.
Los Angeles faced less resistance against the Portland Trail Blazers in their first-round matchup, winning in five progressively more convincing games and airbrushing over the Lakers’ struggles throughout their first nine Orlando appearances — a stretch in which Los Angles scored just 103.1 points per 100 possessions.
But they’re here now, where it always seemed likely they could be — no matter how improbable the road wound up being. Here’s what to watch for in Game 1 and beyond.
Regular-season review: Rockets won series 2-1
Player absences headlined both the first and last pre-playoffs meetings between these two teams.
Back in late January, the Lakers rode a 31-point, 12-assist performance from LeBron James to a win without Anthony Davis in the lineup. In August, within the Orlando bubble, the Rockets won out in a game that included neither James nor Russell Westbrook, whose post-restart appearances with Houston have been limited because of a hamstring injury.
But the second meeting of these teams offered, perhaps, the best outline of how this series could unfold. It occurred just after the trade deadline, where the Rockets went all-in on their hyper-small-ball strategy by trading their only true centre, Clint Capela, to the Atlanta Hawks.
Davis, predictably, dominated with no similarly large human in sight to stop him, scoring 32 points on 14-of-21 shooting from the floor. But the Rockets won. They employed P.J. Tucker as their centre despite him being five inches shorter than Davis, secured only one less rebound than the Lakers and, on the shoulders of a 41-point performance from Westbrook — who was largely guarded by Davis — they won.
In that one-game sample lies the formula Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni will hope to replicate, and the Lakers will do all in their power to learn from.
“We want to make them adjust to us, the same way they try to have teams adjust to them playing small ball,” Davis said recently. “We have to make sure that we dominate them on the offensive glass and also make them adjust to our size.”
Key matchup: Anthony Davis vs. P.J. Tucker
Davis said it himself, if the Lakers can exploit the Rockets’ size-averse lineups to the point they hemorrhage possessions and feel forced to adjust, there’s no option for them to effectively switch to. Trotting out Tyson Chandler isn’t a real solution if small-ball fails. Sometimes the all-in can backfire.
While he isn’t the sole member of the Lakers who could tip the scale — JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard both stand near seven-feet-tall — Davis is resoundingly the most talented, and the member of the Rockets who’s spent the most time guarding him this season is Tucker.
“We’re undersized,” Tucker said recently. “Okay, so what? The elephant is in the room. It’s always going to be something we’ve got to deal with. We do it on purpose. It’s not like it’s something that somebody just threw on us and we’ve got to deal with it. We choose to be this size. We choose to play the way we play because we feel like we have an advantage.”
The sample size is decidedly small, spanning just 9:58 of action according to NBA.com, but Tucker managed to limit Davis to six points — the lowest total for anyone who spent at least eight minutes as Davis’ primary defender — while also forcing four turnovers.
Ten minutes of action is far too little to label Tucker as a Davis-stopper. But, in confined stretches, he can contribute to slowing down his scoring — and the turnovers can’t be overlooked, either. Houston has a tendency to clog the paint. Part of Davis’ offensive responsibility will come from choosing not to shoot, too, and recognizing when to act as a facilitator to find perimeter shooters.
Honourable mention: LeBron James vs. James Harden
There’s a tension in labelling a basketball-related thought containing James and Harden as an “honourable mention.” They are the fulcrum of their respective teams, the players upon whom series and championship aspirations rest and could, on any given night, be the singular driving force behind a win or a loss.
Figuring out how to guard Harden will be a burning, ongoing question for Los Angeles. There is no Dort this round. Defending by committee — even for a team with the third-best defensive rating in the bubble — should be an uphill battle.
Tucker would be a suitable option to slow down James, but doing so would leave Davis free to roam and feast. Robert Covington, positionally, could be tasked with the matchup but has little hope of stopping any dribble penetration attempts, where The King thrives.
It’s reductive to say the outcome of James vs. Harden will determine the outcome of Lakers vs. Rockets, but it will shape every part of the story.
Lakers: Kyle Kuzma
Maximizing Davis’ talents at the centre positions means giving him and James another skilled big to work with — especially against the Rockets, whose smaller players can punish more traditional, single-talent big men. For the Lakers, that’s Kuzma.
Though his individual averages in the bubble — 10.8 points on 36 per cent shooting overall and 30.4 per cent from three — aren’t extraordinary overall, he helps unlock one of Los Angeles’ most effective lineups.
The combination of Kuzma, James, Davis, Danny Green and Alex Caruso has spent just over nine minutes on the court together, during which they outscored opponents by a staggering 34.1 points per 100 possessions while also outrebounding opponents.
Rockets: Russell Westbrook
Sometimes searching for an answer other than the simplest one is just seeking to complicate the question. Westbrook embodies what it means to be an x-factor, a player whose singular, polarizing greatness led him to an MVP award, triple-double seasons, repeated first-round exits with the Thunder and nearly another one at the hands of his former team this year, too.
He is remarkable and deeply flawed. Throw in that he doesn’t look like he quite has his explosiveness back after that hamstring injury, and it’s unlikely he can string together another game-deciding 40-point performance where he gets the better of Davis.
But there’s a world where Westbrook relinquishes his need to have the ball in late-game situations and embraces his best-fit in the series — cutting, setting screens and defending with the same ferocity that fuelled his MVP year. In that world, the Rockets’ ceiling is shattered.
Lakers in six.
Los Angeles enters this series well-rested, a factor which cannot be discounted when games are taking place every other day. Variance suggests the Rockets could very well pull off a three-point-inspired win or two.
But the Lakers’ combination of a resurgent, Davis-and-James-led offence as well as a top-tier defence will lead them to where it was always likeliest they’d wind up after the second round of the playoffs this year: waiting to find out who their Conference Finals opponent is.