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Playoffs 2020

NBA Playoffs 2020: Los Angeles Lakers vs. Houston Rockets series preview

The 2020 Western Conference Semifinals series between the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers and the fourth-seeded Houston Rockets is the ninth meeting between the two franchises in the postseason.

The Lakers hold a 5-3 record in their eight previous meetings.

The Rockets are coming off a grueling high-intensity Game 7 in their first-round series against the Thunder. On the other hand, the Lakers have been well-rested. They haven't suited up to take the floor since they eliminated the Portland Trail Blazers in Game 5 of their first-round series on Aug. 29th.

Can Houston carry their momentum of a dramatic series win into Game 1 of this matchup or will a lesser-fatigued Lakers take control?

NBA.com is your destination for complete coverage of every series from now through the end of the NBA Finals.

Series schedule

All times ET

  • Game 1 - Saturday, Sept. 5, 6:30 a.m.
  • Game 2 - Monday, Sept. 7, 6:00 a.m.
  • Game 3 - Wednesday, Sept. 9, 6:30 a.m.
  • Game 4 - Friday, Sept. 11, (TBD)
  • Game 5 (if necessary) - Sunday, Sept., 13, (TBD)
  • Game 6 (if necessary) - Tuesday, Sept. 15, (TBD)
  • Game 7 (if necessary) - Thursday, Sept., 17, (TBD)

Season series

Result: Rockets won 2-1

Best game: Feb. 7, 2020 - Rockets 121, Lakers 111

Best performance: Anthony Davis - 32 points (14-21 FGs), 13 rebounds, three assists, three steals, three blocks, and zero turnovers.

The Rockets and Lakers played thrice this season but only in one of those games were the key players of both teams available and playing. That game was played at the Staples Center, just hours after the deadline for the mid-season trade window on Feb. 6.

This was the first game the Rockets were playing since they embraced their super-small-ball philosophy. Robert Covington, who the Rockets acquired just a day earlier as part of the same multi-team deal that sent their Clint Capela to the Atlanta Hawks, played a huge role in this game.

He was part of the Rockets' line-up, which included James Harden, Eric Gordon, PJ Tucker, and Russell Westbrook, that sealed the game with a 16-3 run over the final 4:30 in regulation. He finished the game with 14 points, eight rebounds, four assists, two steals, and two blocks. Westbrook was the game's top-scorer with 41 points.

For the Lakers, Anthony Davis balled out in this one, stuffing the stat sheet. LeBron James had 18 points and 15 assists but the team struggled to knock down 3-pointers efficiently, making only nine of their 31 attempts (29.1%) while giving up 19 3-pointers (45.2%).

The first of the other two games was played in Houston on Jan. 18. Despite Davis not suiting up, the Lakers stunned the Rockets behind 31 points and 12 assists from LeBron and a 23-point performance from Kyle Kuzma which included some stellar defense on Westbrook in the second half.

The last game of the season series was played in the bubble in Orlando. LeBron and Westbrook didn't suit up for this one. Harden went off for 39 points, 12 assists, and eight rebounds in a comfortable 113-97 win, which was sealed by a 19-8 run over the final 7:10 minutes of the game.

Key storyline: Can AD punish small-ball Rockets?

No matter which matchup the Rockets throw at Anthony Davis, they would be giving up length or speed and how the Lakers utilize that mismatch should define the result of this series and how long it goes.

The 6'10" forward holds the key on both ends of the floor but especially on offense. Regular season numbers and the small sample size in the playoffs show that the Lakers score a bulk of their points in transition or in the paint. For 3-point makes, the Lakers rank 12th in the playoffs (12.0) and 23rd in the regular season (11.0).

So, Davis must be the dual threat of a shooter and a passer from the post, both of which will open up shots for the Lakers in their half-court offense.

On defense, the Lakers would most likely play their traditional centers in JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard limited minutes, giving Davis enough rest to play center in their small-ball line-ups.

Meanwhile, the Rockets score a bulk of their points from beyond the arc. They led the league during the regular season (15.6) for 3-point makes, scoring nearly 40% of their points from long distance. Nothing has changed in the playoffs, as they knocked down an average of 18.3 3-pointers, nearly 50% of their points.

With their small-ball line-up, the Rockets are willing to get outrebounded by a large margin while looking to compensate for that with their 3-point shooting. Can AD and the Lakers make them pay or will the Rockets dictate the tempo of the games and play the Lakers' bigs off the floor?

Three players to watch

James Harden

Up until a rough Game 7 against the Thunder in which he made just 4 of 15 shots, the Beard had been in great form since the season restart.

In seven seeding games, he averaged 34.1 points, 8.9 assists, and 8.3 rebounds on 53.9% shooting from the field. It's natural for numbers, especially efficiency-wise, to drop in the playoffs but he carried over the seeding-games form to the Thunder series, averaging 29.7 points, 8.0 assists, and 6.3 rebounds on 46.5% shooting from the field. In the six games against the Thunder, the team was a net +60 when he was on the floor.

He's the engine that drives the Rockets whether that's changing the momentum of the game himself or creating plays for his teammates.

LeBron James

The King had a stellar first-round series against the Trail Blazers, averaging a triple-double of 27.4 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 10.2 assists while shooting 60.0% from the field and 46.4% from beyond the arc through the five games.

He will need to carry that form into this series and find his rhythm early as the Lakers heavily rely on him and Davis to have big games to win.

He certainly seemed to have brushed off some rust, if any, in the final few games against the Portland Trail Blazers. Although his primary role is facilitator they'll likely need significant scoring outputs from him on most nights, as the first-round series showed us.

LeBron will dictate the Lakers' play based on countless factors such as his body language, willingness to take the outside shot, effectiveness in the lane, and ball handling.

Russell Westbrook

Three games is a small sample size to judge how well Westbrook has played since he made his return from a quad injury in Game 5 of the Rockets' series against the Thunder.

In the three games, he's averaging 14.7 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 4.0 assists on 41.7% shooting from the field in 28.2 minutes per game. In addition, his minutes have seen an uptick each game - 23, 27, 33.

Apart from the blowout Game 5 win for the Rockets, he's been a negative (a combined minus-12 in Games 6 & 7) while on the floor. Of course, matchups do have something to do with that but the Rockets will need him to balance aggressiveness with efficiency against a contending team like the Lakers.

Stat Breakdown

Lakers vs. Rockets
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Picks and Predictions

Yash Matange: Lakers in seven

Alex Novick: Lakers in six

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