Lakers vs. Houston Rockets: Second-round scouting report

SERIES SCHEDULE

(all times PT)

Game 1: Friday at 6 p.m., ESPN

Game 2: Sunday at 5:30 p.m., ABC

Game 3: Tuesday at 6 p.m., TNT

Game 4: Thursday at TBD, TNT

*Game 5: Sept. 12 at TBD, ESPN

*Game 6: Sept. 14 at TBD, TNT

*Game 7: Sept. 16 at TBD, TNT

*if necessary

HEAD-TO-HEAD

Rockets won this season’s regular-season series, 2-1

Jan. 18: Lakers 124, Rockets 114 at Toyota Center

Feb. 6: Rockets 121, Lakers 111 at Staples Center

Aug. 6: Rockets 113, Lakers 97 at AdventHealth Arena

TALE OF THE TAPE

Rockets (NBA rank) … category … Lakers (NBA rank)

44-28 … Season Record … 52-19

117.8 (second) … PPG … 113.4 (11th)

114.8 (23rd) … Opp. PPG … 107.6 (fourth)

45.1 (22nd) … FG Pct. … 48 (first)

34.5 (24th) … 3pt Pct. … 34.9 (21st)

79.1 (eighth) … FT Pct. … 72.9 (28th)

44.3 (18th) … Rebounds … 45.7 (ninth)

21.6 (29th) … Assists … 25.4 (10th)

8.7 (third) … Steals … 8.6 (fifth)

5.2 (10th) … Blocked shots … 6.6 (first)

14.7 (15th) … Turnovers … 15.2 (22nd)

STARTING BACKCOURT

There is no higher-scoring pair of teammates in the NBA than James Harden and Russell Westbrook, who averaged 61.2 points combined during the regular season. While Westbrook missed time with a quad injury, they are a fearsome offensive combo: Harden can beat virtually any isolation matchup and also destroy from the perimeter, while Westbrook streaks into the paint with power that no else his size possesses. The Lakers had a great deal of success guarding Portland’s scorers, but the physicality and size of Harden and Westbrook make this much more of a chore for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Danny Green, who have to watch out for foul trouble in this series. EDGE: ROCKETS

STARTING FRONTCOURT

It’s one of the few times in NBA history where one opponent doesn’t have much of a frontcourt to speak of. The Lakers will send out 6-foot-8 LeBron James, 6-foot-10 Anthony Davis and 7-foot JaVale McGee. The Rockets will send out Robert Covington and P.J. Tucker, who are both under 6-foot-8. The philosophies are almost completely at odds here: The Lakers want to play big and dominate in the paint. The Rockets want to spread opponents out and fire away 3-pointers in rapid runs. Whichever team is able to exert its will and exploit mismatches is likely to take the series. But for the Lakers, the difference is with James and Davis, they’ll be able to play small and big somewhat interchangeably. If the Rockets struggle with size, their best true center option remaining is seldom-used backup Tyson Chandler. EDGE: LAKERS

BENCHES

The Rockets run an almost uncomfortably tight rotation, with seven main players getting minutes. Jeff Green has been a shockingly effective late addition, and Danuel House and Austin Rivers understand their fit well. But that means that the starters get ground down: Four players had more than 37 minutes in Game 7. For the Lakers, only two players, Davis and James, are averaging over 27 minutes. Players like Kyle Kuzma and Alex Caruso were defensively key in the last series, and will be called on again to play that role. Against his former team, Dwight Howard will have to be effective enough on the glass and help enough offensively to stay in the game against the smaller Rockets. But it’s a good bet the Lakers should have fresher legs in fourth quarters than their opponents. EDGE: LAKERS

COACHES

Frank Vogel improved to a 35-31 postseason record following the Lakers’ convincing first-round win over Portland, showing some Xs and Os prowess on the defensive side by beating down the Trail Blazers’ offensive rating some 20 points per 100 possessions less than in the seeding games. He’ll have his hands full against Mike D’Antoni, former Lakers coach, who has a 72.5 career win percentage and is regarded as an architect of some of the best offenses in NBA history. But D’Antoni’s success has rarely translated in the postseason where he’s just 53-52, and has not yet been to a Finals in 15 previous campaigns as a head coach. EDGE: PUSH

INTANGIBLES

Keep an eye on the injury report: Westbrook is only a few games back from a quad injury and was rusty in the Thunder series, including a Game 6-costing turnover. If he comes back strong, he could give the Rockets a needed boost. But there’s another aspect of Westbrook that is challenging for Houston: His inconsistent shot and sometimes freelance approach to defense makes him a star that coaches can easily scheme against, leading to first-round exits to Utah and Portland in recent years. Harden has also gained a reputation for wearing down late in the postseason, and the Rockets needed to break up two Thunder plays at the end of Game 7 to avoid an elimination that would lead to vast organizational change. There’s a lot of pressure riding on them to succeed – their coach, general manager and star pairing could all hang in the balance. EDGE: LAKERS

SERIES PREDICTION

If the Portland Trail Blazers had a puncher’s chance, the Rockets might be able to land slightly harder punches. When they are shooting well, they have the ability to bend opposing teams to how they want to play, and their fleet-footed defense is likely to pester Davis, even though Houston doesn’t have a true physical matchup. The Lakers’ biggest problem is probably trying to give James breaks as the sole ball-handler, as the Rockets are built to pressure him. But the Lakers’ physicality and ability to play small and big give them an edge over the Rockets, and while they’ve struggled against them in the season, the Lakers’ coaching staff has planned for the possibility of this matchup all year. And as much as he can raise their ceiling, Westbrook has a history of being unable to overcome competent gameplans set against him due to his unsteady jump shot. The Rockets may give the Lakers a scare or catch fire quick, but expect the Lakers to win in five.