2020 Playoff Preview: Los Angeles Lakers vs. Houston Rockets
This is truly the David vs. Goliath battle of the postseason. The Los Angeles Lakers, led by LeBron James and Anthony Davis, are talented and enormous. The King continued to amaze this year, averaging nearly a triple-double and leading the league in assists in his *checks notes* 17th season. Anthony Davis was excellent himself, carrying the primary load without James and being more than a second fiddle next to him. Everyone else filled a role effectively, and the result was the 1 seed in the West.
The Houston Rockets, led by James Harden and Russell Westbrook, are also talented, but in a much different way. Size has not been their strength this season; Robert Covington and P.J. Tucker make up their center rotation. Rather finesse, shooting, and the monster outputs of Harden and Westbrook have propelled Space City this far. They make for a worthy adversary.
James Harden and Russell Westbrook vs. Lakers' guards
For the second straight series, the Lakers' backcourt will have their hands full with a star duo. This dyad expects to be just as difficult to guard, if not even tougher.
Avery Bradley's absence makes things much more difficult for the purple and gold. Danny Green will have to constantly check one of Harden or Westbrook, something he's capable of in bursts but has never had to do to this degree. Of note: Green committed 3.8 fouls per-36 minutes in the Portland Trail Blazers series. We all know about Harden's foul-drawing prowess.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is passable defensively, but probably not good enough to handle one of those two for an entire series. His strengths as an off-ball will be mitigated here, as Harden and Westbrook are sure to attack him 1-on-1. In addition, the Rockets' spaced floor won't give Caldwell-Pope any easy outs. He may get stuck on an island a few times
Lakers' head coach Frank Vogel will need to be very creative to slow down Houston's elite guard tandem. Mixing up defensive assignments, throwing out different weird zone looks, and everything else under the sun should be in play. Maybe LeBron James has to take a high level defensive assignment this series.
Anthony Davis vs. Robert Covington / PJ Tucker
In case you haven't heard, the Rockets took an unorthodox approach to building their frontcourt. Tucker and Covington, their starting power forward and center, stand at 6'5 and 6'7" respectively, and neither plays like a typical defensive fulcrum. Tucker makes up for size disadvantages with ridiculous strength, able to withstand all kinds of post battles with bigger opponents. Covington uses length and instincts to his advantage, getting into passing lanes and acting like a free safety to neutralize plays before they happen.
Conversely, Anthony Davis is Anthony freaking Davis. He was a unicorn before it was cool, bringing guard skills to the 4 and 5 like few before him. He can make use of a size advantage against most smaller wings and forwards, while blowing by most centers with superior ball skills.
The size disparity is of huge intrigue here, and Davis' ability to use it to his advantage could sway the series. That being said, his ability to do so may be hamstrung to something else...
Anthony Davis' minutes at the five
It was worth discussing before the season, when Davis outwardly said he did not want to play the 5 defensively. It was a talking point during the season, as he played more than half his minutes at the 4 but the Lakers still managed to be elite. And it's an even bigger discourse now, as the Lakers will face a team that forces them to do something else.
Davis will have to play the 5 for the Lakers to win this series. Houston's frontcourt plays traditional centers off the floor, either by exposing their defensive flaws in a spaced floor or by rendering them useless in a halfcourt offense. LA can't get away with playing him next to JaVale McGee or Dwight Howard anymore.
His post-ups, isolations and pick-and-rolls will be much more effective if he's the worst shooter on the floor. Additionally, his fears of being pushed around in the post will not be realized against a team like Houston. In theory, Davis gets to have his cake and eat it too; in practice...we'll see.
Russell Westbrook in crunch time
It may be an obvious bellwether, but it's a big one nonetheless. Westbrook's volatile decision-making will be in question all 40-plus minutes he's on the court each night, but it will accentuate when the going gets tough. We've seen the angel and devil of his game already this postseason, and we may get both in this series too. Or we could get neither. Who's to say?
On one hand, Westbrook being the secondary ball handler maximizes his strengths and lets him wreak havoc on his terms. He doesn't have to be the floor general next to Harden, meaning he can pick his spots and just attack. But on the other hand, it causes his engagement to wane—especially on defense. He's a ball hawk some plays and a sitting duck on others, often because he's off the ball.
If the Rockets can get a few fourth quarters with the good Westbrook, they'll have more than a punchers chance to take down Goliath.
Prediction: Rockets in Six
I'm not often one for hot takes, but what better time than now to bring one out?
I know the Rockets just got taken to seven games by an Oklahoma City Thunder team that wasn't even supposed to make the playoffs. I know that Playoff LeBron is arguably the best player ever, and that he picks apart defenses like they're second grade math problems. And I know that Anthony Davis at his best should be able to demolish Houston's small ball model.
But I also know this: the Rockets' system works. Harden and Westbrook with maximum space is a recipe for an all-time great offense. Their defense is nothing to sneeze at either, especially if Davis keeps trying to force the issue on Tucker and/or Covington. The less that LeBron has the ball, the better.
If Harden plays like he's capable of, Westbrook has three or four high level games, and Covington and Tucker hold down the fort, the series is theirs.
Should the Lakers make me look stupid (and there's a good chance they do), it will likely be because of Playoff LeBron. He still has a few gallons left in the tank, and they'll be good to go now that he's had a week to rest. Expect a Game 1 trouncing on Friday night.
There's a lot going Houston's way though, such as the lack of a Golden State Warriors superteam in its way, Harden being more rested and playoff ready out of the hiatus, and that Westbrook is operating with the most space he's ever had. This series will be closer than Twitter makes you think.