With the Miami Heat’s 4-1 series victory over the Milwaukee Bucks, game four between the Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets takes center stage this evening.
Rockets-Lakers has been fiercely competitive. The Lakers lead 2-1 but have outscored the Rockets by just three points in the first three games.
If you’ve missed the series so far, make time tonight. The playing style and personnel differences make the games a fun and engaging watch.
The Rockets, of course, jettisoned decades of basketball orthodoxy in February when they traded center Clint Capela for Robert Covington and committed to small lineups. The tallest player in their rotation is the 6-8 Jeff Green.
Houston’s style of play is both driven by analytics and entertaining. They spend their time on offense relentlessly pursuing layups, threes and free throws. Their possessions often have a madcap feel. After an initial screen to hunt a favorable matchup for James Harden or Russell Westbrook, they proceed through multiple drive-and-kicks to create good shots.
While it feels madcap, it’s a highly disciplined and demanding approach. Players consistently turn down shots that many NBA teams would take as they work together to create better ones. The players are repeatedly asked to make fast decisions and quick moves on offense.
One thing about the Rockets: they’re a prolific three-point shooting team but not an exceptional one. The not-so-secret feature of their style is that even a low percentage from three-point range is better than taking non-at-rim twos. The break-even point for Houston is about 27%. In other words, as long as they’re trading two-point jumpers for threes, they only need to shoot about 27% to produce the same number of points. Since they’re actually swapping those long twos for a combination of threes, at-rim attempts and free throws, they’re coming out ahead.
Another thing that makes this series fun: the Rockets defend. It takes a big commitment from all five guys on the court to play effective defense and grab defensive boards without a big man. Their center is the 6-5 P.J. Tucker. Houston switches and stunts constantly, and they help aggressively. Their speed, quickness and strength makes it work.
Their opponent is at least at interesting because of Lebron James and Anthony Davis — two of the best players in the league and the two best players in the series. The Lakers prefer to play big lineups with JaVale McGee or Dwight Howard at center and Davis and James at forward. After game one, Davis decided he’d be willing to play more at center and that’s helped Los Angeles win games two and three.
It’ll be interesting to see what head coach Frank Vogel and the Lakers do with their lineup in game four. McGee hurt his ankle in game three but is listed a probable for tonight. Howard was ineffective in game one and didn’t appear in games two or three. The Lakers may start McGee tonight but expect Davis to take most of the center minutes.
The Rockets try to pack the paint on defense, which puts pressure on the Lakers’ suspect perimeter shooting. That hurt Los Angeles in game one, but they made enough in their two wins to keep Houston defenders honest.
- Game 4 — Los Angeles Lakers (2-1) vs. Houston Rockets — 7:00 p.m., TNT