The first time the world was introduced to the Houston Rockets’ experimental, small-ball roster was in February during the regular season. On a Thursday night at Staples Center the newly acquired Robert Covington made his Rockets debut, and the Rockets shot their way to a 121-111 victory over the Lakers. Now, these teams will meet in a Western Conference semifinal series that many believe is a matchup nightmare for the Lakers.
Houston has played a total of 29 games, that includes the seven-game series that just concluded with Oklahoma City, with this center-less roster, and the returns have been marginal. They are just 16-13 straight up, 13-16 against the spread in those 29 games. This is far from a dominant stretch of basketball, so what about the Rockets would throw a wrench in the Lakers’ plans for a NBA Finals berth?
Houston has a clear and distinct advantage when it comes to the level of talent among the guards in this series. James Harden and Russell Westbrook will regularly find themselves up against Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Danny Green or Alex Caruso. While these three are part of one of the best defenses in the league, Houston’s isolation-heavy offense negates some of what Los Angeles does so well on that side of the ball.
Caldwell-Pope finished the regular season as the 109th-ranked shooting guard in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus metric. The Lakers are such a poor shooting team they need him on the floor, which means he will find himself in one-on-one situations with Harden or Westbrook, something that is not ideal for the Lakers. Green or Caruso could be the best options on defense for Harden, outside of LeBron James, as both were top-10 shooting guards in Defensive Real Plus-Minus.
However, the real gap in the two backcourts is the level of offensive skill as a whole. Caruso is a 33.3 percent shooter from deep this season, but managed just 20.0 percent over 23.8 minutes per game against Portland. Green shot 36.7 percent from beyond the arc on the year, but that dropped to 35.7 percent in the first round. These are not shot creators in the backcourt for the Lakers.
In Game 1 against the Blazers, the Lakers managed just 0.91 points per possession in part because that backcourt trio managed to shoot a combined 5-for-27 from the floor and 2 of 16 from deep. Those are extreme figures that will not likely repeat themselves, but it shows how low the floor is for the Lakers offense if James or Anthony Davis are not aggressive in their scoring.
Houston is a high-variance team due to its style on offense, but that style alone will be trouble because of simple math: three is worth more than two. In those 29 games as a small-ball roster Houston is averaging 49.2 3-point attempts per game. During that same stretch Los Angeles has played in 27 games, postseason included, and averages just 33.6 3-point attempts per game. Think about it like this: Houston is averaging 16.9 made 3-point attempts per game as a small-ball unit, Los Angeles is averaging just 10.9 makes from deep per game during the same stretch of play. In other words, the Lakers have to make up 18 points in scoring on average per game if these numbers play out over the course of a seven-game series.
This is why Houston will likely give them all they can handle in their upcoming series. The Lakers have the better duo in James and Davis, but the style of offense that the Rockets play will always make them a tough matchup in a best-of-seven series.