After the Houston Rockets’ Game 1 Round 2 upset of the Los Angeles Lakers, there are renewed calls for Frank Vogel to change his starting lineup but what he actually needs to do is change the style his team is playing.
Heading into the playoffs, the concern was the Lakers’ ability to contain the Rockets’ small ball offense. While the Lakers still need to adjust defensively, their real problem in Game 1 was beating the Rockets’ small ball defense. The smaller, tougher Rocket’s defenders were essentially able to bully and outplay the taller Lakers’ players in the paint at both ends of the court, winning points-in-the-paint and tying them in the battle of the boards.
Benching traditional back-to-basket centers is only part of the solution to matching up with the Rockets’ crafty small ball lineup. Starting and playing Anthony Davis or Markieff Morris at center will help the Lakers defensively. But pounding the ball inside to Anthony Davis against PJ Tucker is exactly what the Rockets want. You don’t beat them just by going small on offense. You actually need to play small, which means without a traditional center.
While the Rockets offense is revolutionary, their strategy on defense uses simple time-tested traditional tactics of packing the paint, keeping their opponents from getting to the rim, and forcing them to shoot long jumpers. Starting Anthony Davis at center and isolating him in the post against the smaller PJ Tucker is fools’ gold. It only clogs the lane, prevents LeBron from getting to the rim, and ultimately helps the Rocket’s defensive strategy.
What the Lakers need to do to beat Houston’s switch-everything defense is abandon trying to take advantage of their height in the post and instead spread the defense to open the floor for LeBron and AD to attack the rim. The way to beat Houston’s defense is to unpack the paint and eliminate any rim protection by playing 5-out sets positioning five players who can effectively shoot the three and attack the basket behind the 3-point line.
Players who could be good fits for 5-out sets include starters LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Danny Green plus reserves Kyle Kuzma, Alex Caruso, Markieff Morris, and Dion Waiters. Frank Vogel would be smart to consider playing an eight-player rotation of those players against the Houston Rockets. They could match up on defense and enable the Lakers to spread the floor and attack the paint on offense.
You’ll notice that I did not include Rajon Rondo in that eight-player rotation because he lacks the 3-point gravity necessary to keep his defender from sagging off him to clog up the middle and is a liability on the defensive end. Besides a respectful loyalty to JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard for their contributions to winning the West, Vogel needs to understand this is not the right series for Rondo or McGee or Howard to play. Not against the Rockets.
While the Lakers also lost Game 1 to the Blazers, what’s scary about losing the first game against the Rockets is how they beat LA at their own game. They didn’t dominate by raining threes. They played smarter basketball. Like Mike Budenholzer, whose refusal to make changes has the Bubble Bucks on the verge of being swept by the Heat, Frank Vogel’s reluctance to adjust his lineups or style of play may end up costing the Bubble Lakers.
Right now, the Lakers aren’t in great danger but if Vogel continues to rely on his usual lineups and rotations and the Lakers lose Game 2 to the Rockets and go down 0–2, the odds of them winning the series plummet to just 7%. While that’s not the 0% odds facing the Bucks, it’s not where the Lakers want to be 2 games into the series, which means Vogel needs to get serious and make major adjustments before Sunday’s Game 2 against Houston.
The changes Frank needs to make are simple. On offense, he needs to bench McGee and Howard, give their roles and minutes to Kuzma, Caruso, Morris, and Waiters, and spread the floor with 5-out sets to free LeBron and AD. Defensively, he should consider playing a triangle and two zone to double Harden at the half-court line, commit defenders to prevent easy corner threes, and keep Anthony Davis in the middle for rim protection.
The bottom line is LeBron James and Anthony Davis are being outplayed by James Harden and Russell Westbrook but a big part of the blame is due to Frank Vogel stubbornly refusing to change his lineups and strategies.