When the Los Angeles Lakers traded for Anthony Davis last summer, the team immediately became a popular championship pick, boasting the second best Vegas odds to win the title.
The Lakers were well on track to the championship in March, winning 24 of their first 27 games with the help of recent signees Danny Green and Dwight Howard.
Since July’s NBA restart, though, things haven’t been so sweet for L.A. Sure, the Lakers were able to coast through their eight “seeding games” to finish off the regular season and hold on to the first seed in the West, but they’ve lost more than they’ve gained during the four-month hiatus and are now in jeopardy of a second round exit to the Houston Rockets.
The Lakers had several things going for them in mid-March when the pandemic brought the world of sports to a halt. They had great team chemistry, a fully healthy roster and lots of momentum coming off big wins against the Milwaukee Bucks and L.A. Clippers — the NBA’s first and third best regular season teams at that point — in the final weekend before the shutdown.
Now, the Lakers have lost the important perimeter defender Avery Bradley and Rajon Rondo, a key playmaker and leader off the bench. Home court advantage is no longer relevant in the Orlando bubble, and almost every other team has showed up at full strength. In their seeding games, the Lakers looked out of sync as they weren’t able to buy a 3-pointer and had statistically one of the worst offenses of all the teams in the bubble, ranking near the bottom of the league in 3-point shooting.
In their first round matchup, the Portland Trail Blazers posed a very real threat to the Lakers, showing up to Orlando with a healthy roster that had missed key components during the regular season. However, the Lakers easily handled a scorching hot Portland squad in five games.
Heading into the Western Conference Semifinals, the Houston Rockets are a team I believe will give the Lakers serious trouble, assuming they get past Oklahoma City in Wednesday’s Game 7. Although the Lakers have an enormous size advantage over the Rockets and Defensive Player of the Year finalist Davis going up against, well, 6-foot-5 inch PJ Tucker at center, Houston’s small-ball lineup does not match up well for the Lakers.
Russell Westbrook and James Harden make up one of the NBA’s most electrifying backcourts, and their games are complemented perfectly by Houston’s unprecedented spacing and quality 3-point shooters all around. This poses problems for the Lakers, a team that struggles with perimeter defense, especially without key defensive guard Bradley. The Lakers might bully the Rockets in the paint and win the rebound battle by 30, but it won’t matter if Houston hits even a third of their usual barrage of threes against L.A.’s weak perimeter defense.
In the Rockets’ seeding game against the Bucks, Houston was out-rebounded by 26 and outscored in the paint by 40. Both of these things may very well happen every night in a second round matchup between the Lakers and Rockets. However, the Rockets attempted an NBA record 61 threes against the Bucks on a very average 34.4% clip and still won the game behind a much better-than-expected defensive effort from the league’s smallest team.
Additionally, the Rockets are the team benefiting the most coming into the playoffs fully rested. Westbrook and Harden are two of the league’s leaders in usage rate, and they tend to wear down in the playoffs from the heavy load they are asked to carry over the course of a full season. Their small-ball lineup will also need fresh legs to stay active on defense and keep fighting for boards throughout the playoffs.
There’s a reason the Lakers have been one of Vegas’ favorites to win the NBA title for most of the season: three-time champion, four-time league MVP LeBron James, now paired with fellow superstar Davis. If there’s anything I’ve learned watching NBA basketball, it’s that you can never count out a James-led team, and it might be outrageous to suggest that this star-studded duo could lose to the notoriously inconsistent Rockets.
But the Lakers shot just 34.3% from beyond the arc against the Blazers, and the current NBA demands three-point shooting excellence. James is an average outside shooter, making 34.8% of his threes on the season; Davis is no better at 33%. We know L.A.’s two stars are going to bring their A-games, but their playoff success hinges on the likes of Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, whose primary role is to shoot threes. Unfortunately, they aren’t living up to their roles at the moment.
On the other hand, no NBA team combines volume and efficiency from long range like the Rockets. If Harden and Westbrook maintain their regular season efficiency against the Lakers and the Rockets’ supporting cast hits their open shots created by their superstar backcourt, they will be very dangerous. Houston is, at the very least, an underrated defensive team. They play with grit and passion on both sides of the ball and have all the tools to knock off the first-seeded Lakers. My prediction? Rockets in seven.
Wyatt Allsup is a junior writing about Los Angeles sports. His column, “Running the Break,” runs every other Tuesday.