The Duel

How the Lakers Gave the Rockets a Dose of Their Own Medicine

Rob Perez
LeBron James and James Harden.
LeBron James and James Harden. / Michael Reaves/Getty Images

“Usually I'd let him go on chewing those Oreos until he was dead broke, but I don't have that kind of time.”

It was the moment Matt Damon discovered John Malkovich’s tell in "Rounders" and took him for six stacks of high society — $60,000 — to save his and his best friend’s life.

The moral of the moment is rather simple: when you find a weakness in a life or death situation, you lean on it. Sometimes, however, there’s no stopping the inevitable.

Following the Los Angeles Lakers’ 110-100 victory over the Houston Rockets in Game 4, Lakers head coach Frank Vogel was more than happy to share how he was preventing the high-powered Rockets from ever getting off the launching pad:

It’s not an exaggeration to say that coach Vogel caught onto Houston’s Oreo habit, and instead of letting the Rockets shoot themselves onto the golf course, he is daring them to pivot their business model in the final hour, and he’s doing it because he already knows their answer: they won’t, nor, will they ever.

They don’t know any other way.

Houston traded their only true starting center and the next five years of their franchise to assemble this Smörgåsbord of ‘smallball’, the foundation of which is built upon volume and efficiency.

After losing the first game of the series, the Lakers decided to shift their strategy to fight fire with fire and try to, quite literally, choke the air from the engines of the Rockets’ long-range bombers. The result of which has produced eye-popping results, as Houston’s quantity of three-point attempts per game has plummeted from 51.0 during the OKC series to 38.8 against the Lakers. That number drops even further to 31.5 if you filter out only the games in which Rajon Rondo has been active for.

Running the Rockets off the three-point line has funneled them into the paint, where the Lakers have a first-team NBA All-Defensive team basketball Godzilla stationed in the form of Anthony Davis. Asking the undersized Rockets to finish at the rim against this skyscraper with a seven-foot, six-inch wingspan has proven to be nothing short of a disaster — as the Rockets suffered -38 points in the paint differential during Game 4, the second-highest number in the past 20 years.

If scoring wasn’t already a difficult enough task, the Lakers have also cracked the code in the Rockets’ number-one-ranked bubble defense.

With the help and mind of coach Daniel, (seriously, check out this guy’s channel if you love the X’s and O’s of professional basketball), you will see just how Vogel is giving Houston a dose of their own medicine.

The Rockets just didn’t achieve the honor of being the top-ranked defense by accident. They start by utilizing their agile swingmen to fill gaps instead of necessarily “face-guarding” their counterparts. The purpose of this is to make any opposing penetrator’s life hell, drowning them in help coverage, which still has the ability to close out their original assignment if needed.

Against Oklahoma City, it worked.

The Lakers, however, are not allowing them to cheat without punishment. 

In the example above: the Lakers have Kyle Kuzma cut through the lane with the purpose of leaving Russell Westbrook on an island to guard Rondo or, not and, OR fill the gap to prevent a LeBron James drive. If he cheats to the nail at the free line extended, LeBron will kick it. If he doesn’t, LeBron will have a 1-on-1 with PJ Tucker, which ultimately resulted in a layup.

Spacing and penetration are the arteries of the Lakers' revamped offense, two basketball ideals which the Rockets thought they would be teaching as the sensei.

On the contrary to the first instance: any time the Rockets decide to stay in their gaps, Los Angeles is taking advantage of it.

These are just two drops in the bucket of many, many more exploitations of the Rockets’ shell defense — one that has always relied on its athleticism and mastery of geometry to prevent their opponents from achieving efficient field goal attempts.

It appears now, however, that it’s no longer enough. Without a true seven-foot anchor to defend the rim in the event of a rotation breakdown in the paint, they have been picked apart and burdened PJ Tucker with a hopeless task.

Does it help that Los Angeles has the best active basketball player on Earth, with vision more precise than the Terminator T-1000? Of course. James has been chopping up defensive schemes for almost two decades now.

But in the end, it’s been the Lakers who have made these vital mid-series changes necessary to get them to the finish line.

If you’re just going to sit there and munch on your Oreos, Houston, even after LeBron has figured out why you’re doing it — you will have no choice but to pay that man his money.