During the regular season, Lakers coach Frank Vogel had a goal of playing both “bigger” lineups and “smaller” lineups within the same game. He wanted to prepare his team for any style of play they might encounter, including against the Houston Rockets, whom they eliminated from the playoffs Saturday night with a 119-96 victory.
Those words are in quotations because LeBron James objected to the characterization of the Lakers’ lineups that feature Anthony Davis as center as “small.” The players in that lineup as it exists now, after all, are not that small. Davis is 6-foot-10, James is 6-9, Markieff Morris is 6-8, Danny Green is 6-6 and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is the shortest of the group at 6-5.
Nonetheless, the Lakers typically used a starting lineup this season that was even bigger, taking advantage of their size by playing Davis at power forward and 7-foot JaVale McGee or 6-10 Dwight Howard at center.
Vogel knew there would come a time when it might be important for the Lakers to be able to counter a smaller, quicker team. The Houston Rockets might have been exactly who he had in mind. In their first three games against the Rockets, they started McGee only to determine in Game 4 that Morris should start and Davis should be their center.
The Rockets have taken criticism for their “small ball” lineups — and for the record, Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni also disagrees with the term. It's a type of lineup that helped the Golden State Warriors win championships, and D'Antoni was sure to note that. On Saturday night he offered this retort when asked if small ball was working.
"Ask the Lakers,” D’Antoni said. "That’s what they beat us with. They were small."
Here are five takeaways from Saturday’s game:
1. The Lakers are driven by their defense. It’s what carries them when they aren’t shooting well, it’s what gives them confidence that they can recover from an early deficit or an opponent’s run. The Rockets have a pair of stars, but the Lakers made one of them much less effective Saturday night — Russell Westbrook. “From Day 1 coach Vogel and the coaching staff said that we need to be the best defensive team in the league,” James said. "And we took that to heart. We had some good months, we had some great months.… But we’re hitting our stride at the right time. That’s in the postseason.”
2. Speaking of Westbrook, he became part of a controversy Saturday night when he started arguing with a spectator in the stands. That spectator was Rajon Rondo’s brother, William. "People at the game are supposed to shut your mouth and watch the game. That's the rules," Westbrook said. "…He wanted to take up for his brother. That's it. But those rules stand for everybody though. No matter who it is, family whatever. But when you cross that line, he's supposed to be at home. There are no rules or regulations for that. He started talking crazy and I don't play that game.” Westbrook convinced an official to eject William Rondo from the game. Rajon Rondo had a bit of a different version of events than Westbrook did when he spoke to Marc Spears of the Undefeated. "He didn’t say anything crazy, raise his voice and cuss [Russ],” said the Lakers guard, who did not address any other reporters. "He called the man ‘Trash.’ As players we get away with manipulating the game and manipulating the referees as if we are being attacked. I’ve done it in the past.”
3. It’s not just on defense that the Lakers are clicking so well. Their offensive firepower was giving them what they wanted Saturday. “The four months was tough,” Davis said of the hiatus because of the COVID-19 pandemic. "It took awhile for us to get back. Even through the seeding games we weren't looking like ourselves. But we just trust the process. And we just kept, you know, trusting in each other, getting in the gym every day and fixing the kinks that we kind of last through those four months. Fine tuning everything. And now we're in a great rhythm on both ends of the floor.”
4. The Lakers know how to recover from a punch or counterpunch. Here's how Kyle Kuzma explains it: "You can't rattle us,” Kuzma said. "You can't rattle us. After the first game against Portland, they were hype, getting after it. We stayed calm. The first game of this series, Houston coming in, hyped, and we just didn't let it faze us, and kept attacking, kept being who we are, and played Lakers basketball.”
5. The Rockets made a habit of erasing big leads built by the Lakers during this series. They nearly did it Saturday, going on a 17-2 run that spanned the end of the first quarter into the second quarter to cut the Lakers’ 22-point lead to seven. It was the kind of situation Vogel had warned his team about and one that they emerged from with the help of James.