The Houston Rockets made it out of the first round by defeating the Oklahoma City Thunder in a thrilling series that went the distance.
Awaiting them in the Western Conference Semifinals is a familiar foe - the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers.
While these two teams faced off three times in the regular season, there's only so much you can take away from those games. Their first meeting was prior to the Rockets making the full-time switch to the small-ball lineup they've used since February's trade deadline. Their second meeting was the very first game in which Houston rolled out their small-ball lineup, and newly acquired Robert Covington didn't even get the start. In their third meeting - this one coming in the Orlando bubble - the Lakers had already clinched the No. 1 seed, resulting in LeBron James sitting it out, while the Rockets were without their own superstar in Russell Westbrook.
So, while that February matchup could prove to be a taster of what's to come, both head coaches Frank Vogel and Mike D'Antoni may take a completely different approach.
With that being said, here are a few areas in which this Western Conference Semifinals series will be decided.
Key stats to know:
- The Rockets shot a league-leading 51.0 3-point attempts per game in their first round series against the Thunder. Converting 35.9% of those opportunities, they averaged 55 points per game by way of the 3-ball, exactly half of their scoring output (110.4 ppg).
- The Lakers averaged 35.0 3-point attempts per game in this first round, knocking down 34.3% of those attempts, the third-worst rate of any playoff team. Los Angeles scored 36 points off of 3s per game, giving Houston a 19-point advantage by way of the 3-ball.
- The Lakers only allowed 30.6 3-point attempts per game in the first round, the lowest in the playoffs. The Portland Trail Blazers connected on 37.9% of those tries.
The size difference of these two teams is something that has been discussed at nauseum at this point. Houston's tallest rotation player is listed at 6-foot-8, while the Lakers have six rotation players listed at or taller than that height.
All things considered, 3-point shooting is right in line with size differential in terms of how this series will be decided.
As you probably know, the Rockets live and die by the 3-ball. In the regular season, they averaged 45.3 3-point attempts per game to lead the NBA. That number only increased during the first round of the playoffs. Houston attempted 51.0 3-pointers per game in its first round series with Oklahoma City.
Yes, you read that right - 51.0 3-point attempts per game.
James Harden didn't shoot particularly well from distance in the first round (31.3%) and neither did teammates Westbrook (16.7%), Eric Gordon (25.0%) or Austin Rivers (19.0%). While other rotation players kept the team's 3-point percentage up, it could mean even more danger if guys like Harden and Gordon, in particular, get going from long range.
That's where Houston will keep itself in this series. That's where the pressure falls on the Lakers.
It becomes equally as important for the Lakers to take and make 3s as it is to defend the 3. Yes, the Lakers will do their best to utilize their size difference down low, but if the Rockets are getting 55-plus points per game from 3s, Los Angeles will have to be better from long range than they were in Round 1.
Look out for Kyle Kuzma (30.4% from 3 in the first round), Alex Caruso (20.0%), Markieff Morris (25.0%) and even Danny Green (34.6%) to find a rhythm to help the Lakers cut out this advantage for the Rockets.
Controlling the paint
Key stats to know:
- The Thunder out-rebounded the Rockets in all seven games of their first round series. Oklahoma City's 49.9 rebounds per game against Houston led all playoff teams in the first round.
- The Lakers' 48.4 rebounds per game ranked second behind OKC in the first round, while their 13.7 second chance points per game ranked third.
- The Lakers' 50.0 points in the paint per game led all playoff teams in the first round.
It's no secret the Rockets are at a size disadvantage in this series, but that is what they have prepared for.
While they were dominated on the glass against the Thunder, they still won the series. They were dominated on the glass against the Lakers in their meeting back in February, but they still won the game.
Houston's answer to being out-rebounded in the first round was staying stingy in the paint. The Rockets only allowed the Thunder to average 36.0 points in the paint, the fourth-lowest average in the playoffs. Houston's perimeter players were able to crash in the key whenever someone attacked the basket, knowing the Thunder weren't a big-time threat from the perimeter. That's why it's so important for the Lakers' wings to knock down their outside shots, to penalize the Rockets if they crash that aggressively again.
Will they have the same success when going against a dominant scorer like Anthony Davis? We'll get to that in a minute. But Los Angeles lived in the paint against two massive rim protectors in Jusuf Nurkic and Hassan Whiteside in the first round. A hefty responsibility falls on smaller guys like Westbrook, Covington and PJ Tucker to play physical and punch up a few weight classes to keep monsters like Davis, JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard away from the basket.
The Lakers were also successful in keeping the Blazers out of the paint in the first round, only allowing 38.4 points per game in that area. Their 5.8 blocks per game led all playoff teams, and their height is sure to scare away some of Houston's players, although the likes Westbrook and Harden are relentless and crafty when it comes to scoring inside.
Can Houston continue to shut down the paint despite the major size disadvantage? We'll get to see small-ball go up against its toughest test yet.
Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook
Key stats to know:
- In their only meeting against each other this season, Davis guarded Westbrook on 20.9 partial possessions, more than any other Laker. Westbrook had no trouble with the All-Star big man, scoring 14 points on 7-for-9 shooting from the field when Davis was matched up with him, going for one of his best games of the season.
- Jeff Green (26.3 partial possessions) and PJ Tucker (24.9 partial possessions) matched up with Davis the most for Houston this season. In A.D.'s dominant performance back in February, he scored 24 of his team-high 32 points in the paint, dunking just about everything against the Rockets smaller frontcourt.
While superstars like LeBron James and James Harden will dictate this series, you could make the case that each duo's counterpart are the most important players.
Davis was a monster in the first round, averaging 29.8 points per game on 57.3% shooting from the field. Even against towering bigs like Nurkic and Whiteside, A.D. had no trouble getting to his spots, scoring with ease to pace the Lakers' offence.
Now matched up against much smaller defenders, Davis should feast on the Rockets inside. He is without a doubt the biggest difference maker in this series, but not just because of his presence on the offensive end, but the defensive end as well.
Who knows if head coach Frank Vogel will stick with the same gameplan, but Davis drew the assignment of guarding the speedy Westbrook in their meeting back in February. While it is becoming more common for centres to match up with Westbrook since he does the majority of his damage in the paint, the All-Star guard is much more used to smaller, quicker defenders like first round opponents Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Dennis Schroder and Chris Paul.
Westbrook was able to utilize his explosiveness to his advantage against Davis earlier this season, burning the big man on several occasions to get to the rim. Westbrook posted one of his best stat lines of the season against the Lakers in that matchup, going off for 41 points on 60.7% shooting from the field.
Will that be the version of Westbrook that Houston gets in the Western Conference Semifinals? Coming off of a quad injury that forced Westbrook to miss the first three games of the playoffs, he looked a bit rusty at times in that first-round series. The Rockets will need the former MVP to be the best version of himself to apply as much pressure on Davis as possible on each end of the floor.
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