The Los Angeles Lakers head to Houston to take on the “Rockets.” I put the Rockets in quotation marks because I think they should petition the league to become “Hardens,” or maybe even “Beards.” Both teams are riddled with injuries, but they are very different situations. The Lakers are without their best player, which has forced a bunch of young players to step up and take on a bigger role in the offense. The Rockets have lost everyone besides their best player. This normally forces other players to step up. In reality, James Harden has just taken over the duties of the other guys as well. The Rockets have listed Eric Gordon as probable tonight, which should give James Harden a helping hand, but Gordon just returned and got re-injured. I suspect that they are conservative with his injury.
Lakers Coming Off Massive Win
The Lakers are coming off of their biggest win of the season. They trailed the Thunder by 17, only to come back and lead most of the second half before allowing the game to be tied at the end of regulation. This often demoralizes a team, but multiple young Lakers stepped up in OT to get them a massive national television win.
Over the last 2 seasons, the Lakers have struggled to close out games without LeBron, and there is a blatantly obvious reason as to why: Brandon Ingram and the coaching staff. I think that Brandon Ingram has received a lot of flack over time for not being “that guy.” The issue is that now down the stretch of games, he thinks he’s the next Kobe for the Lakers playing iso-ball for contested mid-range jump shots. The Lakers lack ball movement down the stretch, and there is no reason for it. They are also MUCH better when Lonzo Ball is the ball-handler down the stretch.
Lonzo has always been a big shot maker, but he defers IF someone else wants the ball. Lonzo’s eFG % on jump shots in the 4th quarter is 64% this year, light years ahead of anyone else on the team. The issue is that he only does this when he has to. Last game, he “made a mistake” to force the game to overtime. He then took over in OT because he felt responsible for it. Coach Luke Walton constantly mentions that he “has a knack for hitting big shots, even in practice” but never actually has him take big shots. If the Lakers realize that Lonzo and Kuzma are THE guys until LeBron gets back, they will be ultra-competitive even with top teams like they were vs. the Thunder. I expect them to come into this game with similar confidence, which really benefits the young guys.
The Rockets are without any skilled big outside of Nene who can barely play 15 minutes a game. I think we could see one of two things out of the Lakers to counter that. They can either play small with Kuzma at the five and run with the Rockets or abuse the lack of center depth and use Zubac as a skilled big that can abuse the smaller players in the paint. I think they should use the big. The rest of the Rockets don’t shoot the ball anyways, so the Lakers might as well just use a big for post presence on the defensive end as well.
James Harden Carries the Rockets
James Harden is having the best offensive stretch that we have seen in the NBA in the last few decades. It’s not only the numbers that Harden is putting up, it’s the way he is putting them up. Since Chris Paul’s last injury, James Harden’s usage % is 47.8%. For some perspective on that, the second highest in the NBA this year is Joel Embiid at 31.8% and the highest ever in a season was Russell Westbrook two years ago at just over 41%. Usage rate measures how often a possession ends with that player. So over the past month, James Harden has either shot or turned the ball over half of the Rockets possessions while he is on the court. He also assists on over 50% of his teammate’s shots. These numbers are incredible, and they show in the stat sheet.
A few games ago, Harden scored 38 points and was 1-17 from the field. I have a feeling that has never been done before. The real interesting part of this game is how the Lakers plan on guarding him. These shot-makers have been the Lakers biggest defensive problem, but they have been really aggressive against good teams/players recently starting in Golden State. They basically just doubled Durant, Curry, and Klay and forced them to pass for an open shot to a bad shooter. They also did this vs. the Thunder, which is why Russ shot well from 3-pt range and 2-18 from the paint. He got triple teamed inside, but they actually dared him to shoot the ball from three-point range. If this is any indication of what they may do to Harden, this game will be incredibly interesting. I think they may just completely sell out to getting the ball out of his hands, which we really haven’t seen. This will give other guys open looks, but they’re not as good as Harden obviously.
Lakers vs. Rockets Prediction
I think there are too many ways the Lakers stay in this game to not take them +7.5. The Rockets have no way to pull away from a team outside of James Harden. With the recent defensive development, I think that if that begins to happen, we will see the Lakers just completely ignore guys like Gary House and Austin Rivers to dare them to shoot over a double-teamed Harden.