Game 1 Film Study: How Houston made easy work of the Lakers
The Rockets dominated game one against the Lakers on Friday night. The Lakers took the lead to start the game but that lasted only until halfway through the first quarter, and the Rockets never let them back. The score may have been close for a long time, but Houston was always in the driving seat. By the fourth quarter, the Lakers looked ready to throw in the towel, surrendering to the fact they had no idea how to attack Houston’s smallball lineup, and would have to go back to the drawing board before game 2. The talk since then has been about whether the Lakers should go small or utilise big lineups, with both AD and one of JaVale or Dwight on the court at all times. @Tim_NBA, who is an excellent follow and has been championing the idea that the Lakers should play big has been banging this drum.
Tim has been arguing that the paint is more packed and there is more ‘practical spacing‘ with the two big lineup. So let’s take a look at that notion.
It’s important to note that the paint doesn’t have to be packed at the start of plays. In the clip below Danny Green drives from the corner and seems to have a clear path, but look at how James Harden leaves Anthony Davis to help contest at the rim. He is betting that a), Danny Green can’t or won’t make that pass, and b) Anthony Davis will miss that shot.
I have wrote previously about how important defending slip screens and AD dives to the basket is for Houston. I’ve seen frustration from Lakers Twitter that this wasn’t utilised as a weapon more, and there were a couple of plays where it certainly seemed AD had a path to the basket that was ignored.
However, any suggestion that the Lakers can adjust by just having AD dive to the rim isn’t giving the Rockets defense enough credit. This is clearly a priority on the scouting report and an area they focused on improving. Houston was more aggressive in bringing a 3rd man over underneath the basket when they sensed an over the top lob coming. Watch here how the defender from the weakside corner is always sliding over to help, prioritising stopping Davis over covering the Lakers poor shooters. And even when L.A did get a good look at a lob play, that didn’t stop Houston from grabbing steals, like in the last play.
Look how Harden is on top of Davis’s attempt to spin to the basket below. In the regular season, he and Dwight Howard are able to get 2 or 3 dunks a game on this move because the defense isn’t ready. Houston is more prepared this time and takes it away.
When Davis looked to post up, Houston mostly had single coverage, but there was a man ready to help if he spun to the basket too. When AD or LeBron post up, in the weakside the Lakers usually have Dwight or JaVale in the dunkers spot, and a shooter in the corner. But Houston has no respect for whoever is in the corner, leaving Rondo, Kuzma and Danny Green open in the plays below. That means that Howard’s man is doing a dance in and out of the paint, ready to meet AD at the rim. The defender assigned to the corner then leaves his man to guard Dwight and take away the lob and boxout. They are able to bring in 3 defenders on 2.
Even when Davis was able to get inside position for the lob off an initial post up attempt here, Harden comes over on the catch for the block, abandoning Kuzma in the corner.
They do it on LeBron’s isolations here too. Once you notice it, you can’t unsee it. Every single LeBron or AD iso/postup had this alignment.
This is where the two bigs really messes with L.A’s spacing. If you had a shooter on the perimeter instead of McGee or Howard in the dunkers spot, that would be much harder for Houston to bring a defender over to cover the rim. As it is, even when LeBron is able to back down PJ Tucker here, the restricted area is a wall of bodies.
Even without a center on the floor though, Houston will still aggressively send help and live with the chances of leaving a shooter open. This is the same problem OKC had. Not enough shooters to make the defense pay. Jeff Green even leaves LeBron here to help on AD as he attempts to back down Eric Gordon at the free throw line. Houston knows LeBron is at best an average above the break shooter.
Matching 5-out with 5-out worked to some extent for the Thunder in round one, but the Lakers don't have the roster to take advantage. Who is beating their defender off the dribble? LeBron was strangely passive, not even trying to beat Eric Gordon on the perimeter. That will change. But none of the Lakers guards have the same skill at getting to the rim that OKC’s three-headed monster of Schröder, Paul and Gilgeous-Alexander did.
There was some truly puzzling rim protection from all of the Lakers big men throughout the game, as Houston got layup after layup. Watch the compilation of drives below. Yes you have two big men, but does Anthony Davis’s weakside positioning have any impact on the path to the basket?
This isn’t a Milwaukee Bucks style defense, with Eric Bledsoe hanging on Harden’s shoulder, shepherding him into the wall of Brook Lopez and Giannis Antetokounmpo at the rim. The Lakers aren’t comfortable leaving shooters open like that.
Davis's length, being able to play the passing lanes on the weakside, is useful at times. We see him getting a steal here on the kickout. But that was one play for the whole game.
Houston took just 39 threes, way below their usual average, because Harden and co were happily getting to the rim and the FT line all night. There was no need to kickout. As such, AD's positioning was completely redundant throughout most of the game.
Houston’s 5-out offense was able to keep the rim protectors away from the basket. Watch the three drives below and the positioning of Dwight Howard, always stuck on the corner shooter and not in any sort of position to contest at the rim. Instead we see Kyle Kuzma getting cooked one on one twice in a row by Eric Gordon, and then Harden driving with Alex Caruso sliding over at the rim.
When AD was at center, Harden looked to bring him out on the perimeter in order to remove the shot blocking at the rim. In the first clip below Harden gets past Davis and makes an easy layup around Danny Green contesting at the rim. In the second, Davis is stuck on an island and fouls Harden on the 3-point attempt.
Even when Davis wasn’t on the ballhandler, he was bizarrely absent at the rim. Gordon drives here and the Lakers have Rondo as their weakside rotator to protect the rim. Why not the 7-foot defensive player of the year candidate?
A lot of the talk of L.A going big throughout the game is also redundant if their backup center can’t stay on the court. And as we saw in game one, this isn’t a matchup for Dwight Howard. When he was put in the action, rather than hanging out in the corner, he was a disaster.
The Rockets were completely comfortable on both ends of the floor in game one. It's likely we will see some adjustments going forward for the Lakers, including shortening their rotation. Their best adjustment would be not playing Rondo, but thankfully for Rockets fans it sounds like he will continue to play. They might give up on Dwight Howard and Markieff Morris, who looked particularly lost. They had more movement in the first quarter, which completely disappeared as their offense fell apart in the 4th. The Rockets should expect more offball action, with cuts and flare screens out of LeBron and AD's post ups and isolations. But we also know that the Rockets can continue to force turnovers, can hit more 3's, and have the far superior 1v1 play. Houston has to feel confident going into game 2.