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Thursday, September 03, 2020

L.A. Lakers Versus Houston Preview

Western Conference Second Round

#1 L.A. Lakers (52-19) vs. #4 Houston (44-28)

Season series: Houston, 2-1

Houston can win if…the Rockets effectively utilize Russell Westbrook to score in the paint and create shots for others to offset the inevitable stretches during which James Harden disappears/cannot make a shot. The Rockets went 2-1 with Westbrook during the first round after splitting the first four games of their series with Oklahoma City. For two or three months prior to the NBA shutting down due to COVID-19, Westbrook was playing as well as any player in the league, and he diversifies Houston's attack so that the Rockets are not relegated to just living and dying with three pointers. Since coming back from injury three games ago, Westbrook seems to have maintained his quickness but he lacks either the physical ability and/or the confidence to finish with authority in the paint. If Westbrook gets injured again or is not able to play for any other reason, L.A. could sweep Houston.

The Rockets must also limit their turnovers, force as many turnovers as possible, and do whatever they can to offset what is likely to be a significant rebounding disadvantage. If the Rockets cannot generate "extra" possessions then that will put even more pressure on them to shoot a very high percentage.

L.A. will win because…the Lakers have two of the five best players in the NBA: LeBron James and Anthony Davis. The Lakers have big, skillful players, and their size should overwhelm the Rockets, assuming that the Lakers do not get lazy and settle for jump shots.

James averaged 27.4 ppg, 10.2 rpg, and 10.2 apg during the Lakers' five game first round victory over Portland. He shot .600 from the field during that series. His productivity would be remarkable for any player, and is even more noteworthy considering that he is a 35 year old veteran of 17 NBA seasons. Davis led the Lakers in scoring (29.8 ppg) versus Portland while shooting .573 from the field and contributing 9.4 rpg, 4.2 apg, and 1.6 bpg. If James and Davis are focused and if they attack the paint then the undersized Rockets have no answers.

Although James refers to himself--and is referred to by others--as a "pass first" player, he remains a potent and efficient scorer. One difference is that in the past James always positioned himself as his team's first option but this season James has taken a step back and let Davis be the first option. It is not clear if this was a necessary condition for signing Davis and/or if this is a necessary concession to age. The Lakers still need James to score at least 25 ppg.

James picked Davis and built the roster around himself and Davis, so James has no valid reason to complain about his supporting cast. This team has the necessary talent and depth to win a championship, but in order to do that James--like the championship-winning superstars who came before him--must play at a high level on a consistent basis.

Other things to consider: As I expected, the Lakers lacked the focus necessary to sweep a vastly inferior eighth seeded Portland team, but after the Lakers lost game one they reeled off four consecutive wins, including two by at least 20 points each. Although it was fashionable in some quarters to pick Portland to beat L.A., if that had happened without James and/or Davis suffering a serious injury then that would have been perhaps the biggest first round upset in pro basketball history.

The Lakers will succumb to one or two games when the Rockets are hot from three point range, but--barring injuries or some other unexpected factor--the outcome of this series is not in doubt.

This is just the second playoff series in NBA history featuring two duos of 25 ppg scorers. James was involved in the previous such series when his Cleveland Cavaliers lost to the Kevin Durant-Stephen Curry Golden State Warriors in the 2017 NBA Finals.

James Harden may erupt for a 40 point game early in the series, but it should be no surprise when he flames out with 4-15 field goal shooting (or something like that) in the series finale--and, unlike the first round, Harden will not erase the memory of his poor shooting by coming up with a big blocked shot.

I am picking L.A. in six games.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:02 AM



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