Game 2 Film Study: A 1st Half Implosion Sinks Houston
The Rockets dropped game 2 on Sunday night, with most of damage done during the Russ led 2nd unit. Russ was a complete disaster throughout the game, and the Rockets were a -10 in that spell, in just 5 minutes. On the other side of the floor the Lakers 2nd unit had them go small, with no Dwight Howard subbing in for JaVale McGee. The Lakers ran with AD at center, followed by Kyle Kuzma and Markieff Morris at the 4 and 5. With McGee now officially listed as questionable for game 3 with an ankle injury, we got a good look at the Lakers smallball lineup.
Early on Houston struggled with L.A’s zone defense, but they did generate a couple of good looks just before Harden came out of the game. Yes, it got them late in the shotclock, but that’s nothing to worry about. To beat a defense like that you have to keep the ball moving until they run out of rotators, just like they did on the House corner 3 in the first play here. The 2nd play is more simple, running the 1-5 pick n roll and having Jeff Green pass out of the short roll to an open shooter.
The Rockets had missed the opportunity to run this play on the previous possession. Green rolls into the lane and Harden strangely doesn’t make the pass. Caruso and LeBron momentarily stay on Harden meaning Houston had a 2 on 1 on the strong side, with Markieff Morris stuck between Green and Covington in the corner. Instead, Harden resets and hits Rivers on the opposite corner, who turns down the semi-open shot to try to take his man off the dribble.
Rivers is great at isolation play, but going left is not his strong suit. A broken play ends in a turnover and a 3 on 1 fastbreak layup on the other end.
But then Harden took a rest and Russell Westbrook re-entered the game. Things took a turn. Quickly. The lead went from 24-17 to 36-20 at the end of the 1st quarter. A 12-3 run in the space of 92 seconds.
I’ve written previously about how trying to match small vs Houston can lead to the other team trying their luck in 1v1 play. You better have enough perimeter attackers to do that. Caruso has LeBron screen here but it’s still that drive and kick game Houston will live with, especially from L.A’s below average guards. The Lakers have Rondo and Markieff Morris in the weakside, so you can forgive the defense sagging way off them, but Robert Covington deciding to dig in this much on an Alex Caruso drive was probably a poor choice, and he was in no position to rotate to either shooter.
We also saw the Lakers take advantage of some downright lazy Jeff Green minutes. Kuzma gets a tip-in here with Green offering no help on the boxout, and I included another clip from the 2nd quarter to show just how bad Green was (there was more throughout the game).
When the shot goes up Houston aims to put two bodies on the man in the dunkers spot, bringing in the defender from the weakside corner. Green is that man here, but is simply going through the motions. You can forgive Jeff Green getting scored on in the post by Anthony Davis. You can’t forgive this.
Things start getting real ugly from this point. Westbrook is facing LeBron James who has given him fits so far this series, giving him nothing at the rim. It’s a nice move to gets past James, but his ungodly recovery skill forces a tough reverse layup which misses and the Lakers are off to the races. Russ gets extra credit for not even bothering to contest the Markieff Morris shot. There’s sagging off shooters, and even leaving them, but not even bothering to put a hand up when they are in their shooting motion is just piss-poor effort.
We saw Russ settle for jumpers in the 2nd half and the big concern is that he isn’t getting to the rim like he used to. Part of the problem is he's seeing multiple bodies on his drives. On the play below I think it's poor decision making to start his move with House still cutting, as Kuzma was already dragged into position in the paint to help. This also means that House isn’t in position at the 3-point line for the kickout when Russ gets in the air. Once he goes up there’s only one way for him to go, and Rondo reads the pass to Rivers easily.
Another fastbreak and another catch and shoot 3 for Morris. I don’t love House’s positioning on the break as he is at the corner of the paint despite having Jeff Green already there, and Rivers in place on Rondo if he drove. You don’t need 3 bodies covering that. Instead the Lakers have both Kuzma and Kieff open, and the latter drains the 3.
This next play is just tough to watch. It's more dreadful decision making, this time from Austin Rivers. He wants the foul on the drive, but had already gone up in the air to attempt an over the shoulder pass behind, rather than the easy kickout to House wide open in the corner. Houston would have surrendered another layup in transition if it weren’t for Westbrook taking the foul.
30 seconds left in the quarter and Russ managed to sneak in just one more head-scratching play. Rivers ices the Rondo/LeBron pick n roll and Jeff Green rotates over to the rim to contest. Kuzma makes a well-timed cut and Gordon has to body him up. Instead, both he and Westbrook are ball-watching and Russ doesn’t make the secondary move which is to be in the passing lane to stop the pass out to Morris.
You might have to leave Caruso open above the break, but you live with that. But Russ isn’t even close to where he needs to be, with the knock-on effect being he can’t closeout once the pass is made. Just the 4th wide open Markieff Morris 3 in a row.
As we started the 2nd quarter we saw why Russ is struggling with the 2nd unit. During the regular season in the Russ only minutes, the player he played the most minutes alongside was Austin Rivers, at 419. McLemore was a distant 2nd at 331 and Gordon 4th at 256. A lot of that was of course due to Eric Gordon’s injuries all year, and Mike D’Antoni has been better with the 2nd unit lineups so far in the playoffs, but these minutes hurt. Westbrook tries to drive here but faces a wall of 3 defenders because the defender sags off Rivers. He also again starts his drive just as Jeff Green is cutting and has his defender inside the arc. In the end the only play left is a Rivers missed deep 3.
Another issue the 2nd unit has is the lack of chemistry between Westbrook and Jeff Green. It’s a far cry from the two-man game he has with James Harden. Westbrook misses the pick n pop pass with Green here and instead telegraphs a pass out to Rivers in the corner. Markieff Morris sees it coming a mile off. There’s at least some good cutting and movement from the Rockets after that, but by this point the Lakers were completely dominant and locked in on defense, and their rotations were perfect. It was truly a special play of team defense, and of course the Rivers turnover ends in a LeBron and-1 in transition.
Next play up and we reach the true nadir of this 1st half performance. An out of control Russ drive. Turnover. Transition. LeBron dunk.
After the timeout PJ Tucker came back into the game and Houston began their fightback, getting the game to at least a more manageable deficit at halftime. Tucker was a +18 in his 34 minutes, an incredible feat in an 8-point loss. But we still had time for more terrible Russell Westbrook action before Harden also came back into the game. The play below sees some of the worst pick n roll defense you'll ever see executed by Russ and Jeff Green, bailed out by a quick rotation to the rim by Danuel House.
LeBron misses the deep 3 on the kickout, Russ brings the ball up and coughs up another live ball turnover on the drive. Yet another fastbreak opportunity executed perfectly by LeBron, with the great pass for another dunk just as the defense is settling back into position.
I’ll leave on a positive note, which is how Houston played when Harden came back. It starts with Harden attacking Kuzma downhill, the floor spaced with 4 shooters surrounding him. Then on defense, Houston’s switchability - with no weak links - busts up the Lakers’ delay action. Rondo is above the break with screens occurring on both sides of the court. They get nothing from it and instead Rondo is forced to settle for a contested 3. And then in transition Eric Gordon pushes it and gets to the rim with Markieff Morris offering blasé protection.
Houston went on to utterly dominate the 3rd quarter, turning a 21 point deficit into a 5 point lead. The Lakers wrestled back control early in the 4th, taking advantage of the 2 minutes that PJ Tucker was out for rest, and the 2nd Westbrook only stint in which he had 5 fouls. The Rockets tried to land a couple of late haymakers but ultimately ran out of gas. They will surely feel as comfortable as a team can feel going into the next game after a loss. If Houston is better prepared for a zone defense, for Harden double teams and traps, and if they can take care of the ball, there shouldn’t be much danger of the Lakers jumping out to big leads again. They don’t have the 3-point shooting that Houston does where they can drain five in a row, barring another outlier Markieff Morris performance of course, and the only way L.A has found easy points is in transition.
The plus minus for the Kuzma/Morris minutes at the 4 and 5 heavily favoured the Lakers, but if we see more of that lineup Houston should be able to attack it. We probably won’t see Davis sat when Harden is out there like we did for a short while in the 2nd quarter. Frank Vogel will likely try to match those up if they go small. If the Lakers opt for some Dwight Howard minutes, that's a win for Houston. Dwight was played off the court in game 1, often left redundant guarding PJ Tucker in the corner. When he was in the action, James Harden abused him. Either way, the Russ 2nd unit has to be better. That starts with Westbrook of course. He needs to stop losing his handle, make better decisions about when to start a drive with proper spacing, and stop telegraphing passes out. He needs to get back into position in transition and execute the defensive gameplan. Hopefully D’Antoni will pair him with Gordon and McLemore instead of Austin Rivers to give him easier driving lanes. If Tucker can stay out of foul trouble, that will also help immeasurably.
The Rockets know what they need to do to win game 3.