Lakers’ ‘Elite’ Defense vs. Rockets Sends Strong Warning to NBA

The Rockets' James Harden (left) has reason to be upset by the defense played LeBron James (right) and the Lakers.

Getty The Rockets' James Harden (left) has reason to be upset by the defense played LeBron James (right) and the Lakers.

In the first eight games of the postseason, which covered the first-round series win by the Rockets over the Thunder as well as the Game 1 win over the Lakers in the NBA’s conference semifinal, there appeared to be some certainties when it came to Houston. For one thing, they were going to jack up a lot of 3-pointers (they shot 49.5 per game).

For another thing, they were going to get sizzling scoring from star guard James Harden (30.5 points per game). And they were not likely to turn the ball over much 12.9 turnovers per game).

In the last three games, though, those trends have come to a screeching halt. That’s because, in an intimidating development for the rest of the NBA, the Lakers’ defense has begun to come together, reaching what coach Frank Vogel called, “elite.”

Indeed, it was defense that was on display in L.A.’s Game 4 win that gave the Lakers a commanding 3-1 series lead over Houston. The Rockets, having averaged 110.6 points per game in their first eight playoff showings, averaged 103.7 points.

If there was some doubt, after the Lakers had some shaky performances in the NBA’s restart bubble, that this team is the favorite to win the championship, some were ready to remove that doubt after the Lakers’ Game 4 throttling of the Rockets offense.

If LeBron James and Anthony Davis are the Lakers’ Big 2 stars, coach Frank Vogel said the defense can make that a Big 3.

“That’s as powerful a weapon as there is in one of these playoff runs,” Vogel said. “That’s as powerful as a superstar. If you have an elite defense, that can be our third star, so to speak, when you have the confidence that you can go, four, five, six possessions where you’re just squeezing the other team’ offense, getting stops. With our ability to run the floor, with LeBron James being the quarterback of that action, being in attack mode, we have a strong belief in what we can accomplish as a group.”

Rockets’ James Harden Struggling vs. Lakers Defense

Taking Harden out of his comfort zone has been key for the Lakers, who have been double-teaming the Rockets star to force the ball out of his hands and force his teammates to make shots.

Harden was just 2-for-11 from the field on the night, reminiscent of his Game 2 performance, in which he took only 12 shots. After averaging 20.3 field-goal attempted per game in the first eight games, the Lakers have ratcheted down the pressure they allow Harden to put on them. He has averaged 15.3 shots per game against the Lakers in the last three games.

He did get to the free-throw line 20 times in Game 4, but the Lakers appeared content to have Harden do his damage there, with the clock stopped.

Lakers star LeBron James still had praise for Harden, even after a rough night. Speaking at his postgame press conference, he said:

James is probably one of the best offensive players that we’ve ever seen in this league. He had 20 free throw attempts and we’re trying to not put him to the free-throw line. One of our game plans is not put him to the free-throw line and we’re trying to not put him to the free-throw line, and the guy is so clever that he was still able to get 20 free throw attempts.

So we’re just trying to eliminate anything that we can from him, because he can score from—he gets into the paint with his runners, with his floaters. Obviously, he has the step-back, he’s got his 3s in transition. He has his catch-and-shoot 3s when he’s off the ball. And like I said, he’s very tricky with his moves in the paint, where he gets to the free-throw line. So we’re just trying to take away some things. We can’t take away everything, because that’s just how great he is offensively. We try to follow the game plan and see what happens from there.

Lakers Cutting Off Rockets’ 3-Pointers

Probably as disconcerting as Harden’s ineffectiveness was for the Rockets was their inability to produce from the 3-point line. The team took only 33 in Game 4 after attempting just 30 in Game 3. That has been, in part, because the Lakers have been playing small lineups—with Markieff Morris at center—that allow them to challenge shots at the perimeter without giving up the quickness needed to double-team Harden when he isolates.

“We want to make their isos as difficult as possible without giving up 3,” Vogel said. That is a very difficult assignment. But we have risen to challenge the last couple of games.”

James added a note that could be frightening for the rest of the remaining NBA championship hopefuls to bear in mind—the Lakers are getting better.

“We’re still a team that is growing as well,” James said. “We’ve got some guys that’s not been part of the postseason. This is our first run in the postseason together, this is only our ninth game together in the postseason. So we’ll get better with that.”

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