Heading into the second round series against the LA Lakers, the biggest problem that the Houston Rockets were thought to have was a lack of big-men that could slow down the production of Anthony Davis.
Ironically, two games into the series, the height problem isn’t the one killing Houston, but instead it’s their second-best player, Russell Westbrook.
Matter of fact, the former league MVP hasn’t been his usual self since entering the playoffs in Game 5 of the first round against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
In his playoff debut this season, Westbrook only had seven points, seven assists and six rebounds. Although he did have a great plus/minus with +21, those aren’t the kind of numbers that an MVP should put up, especially in the playoffs.
He followed it up with 17-point, four rebound and three assists performance in Game 7 of the series and in Game 7, he finished with 20 points, nine rebounds and two assists. Those numbers are decent, but not what the Rockets need from a former MVP of the league.
Despite Westbrook’s disappointing performance in the first round series, the Rockets still managed to advance to the second round and matchup with the best of the west: the Los Angeles Lakers.
Houston’s biggest advantage, one that they’ve gone all-in with, is their small ball play. Having shooters and gunners to force the big of the Lakers to play one-on-one on half court. A style that should be an advantage for Beastbrook, right?
In Game 1 of the series, Houston drew first blood, 112-97. Westbrook had a decent performance with 24 points, nine rebounds and five assists. However, he shot poorly at the field with 41.7% and turned the ball over five times. His energy in rebounding and the excellent play of James Harden, Eric Gordon and PJ Tucker still put them over the top, though.
In Game 2, the nine-time All-Star had his worst playoff performance this year. He only finished with 10 points on 26.7% shooting along with seven turnovers and five personal fouls. Granted he grabbed 13 rebounds, four assists and two steals, those numbers are not what Houston is expecting from him.
The Lakers tied the series at 1-1, 117-109.
The Rockets decided to build their roster to cater to the game of their two stars, Harden and Westbrook.
However, during Game 2, Westbrook looked like a role player. The six-foot-three explosive guard was a huge liability on the floor. Evident on his poor overall shooting, he also shot 1-7 from beyond the arc and got baited too many times to take a jumper instead of driving to the basket. The Lakers dared him to shoot threes, and he obliged, including in key moments of the game.
Rockets’ main goal with their line-up is to space the floor for Harden and Westbrook to be able to attack and wreak havoc. Westbrook’s poor shooting night from anywhere made him huge liability as he failed to space the floor which allowed the Lakers utilize their height and have five blocks as a team.
When the Rockets came back in the third quarter to take a lead, they did a lot of it without Brodie on the floor. It was Gordon, Harden, Tucker, Robert Covington and Danuel House Jr. bombing from three to outscore the Lakers 41-23.
This is a huge problem for Houston because their line up is depending heavily on the great plays of Westbrook and Harden. If one of them has a bad game, it will greatly affect the team’s chances of winning. A prime example of it is Game 2.
Six players scored double figures for Houston and yet they still lost by eight and were even down 21 points at one point.
When the threes stopped dropping in the fourth quarter, Westbrook and the rest of the Rockets weren’t able to get into the basket for any easy baskets or draw enough fouls to get to the line. They looked very hesitant to drive, and you saw it in the way they kept passing the ball back out to the perimeter even late into the shot clock.
Let’s take a look at how the Rockets’ top six scorers shot from three as a group:
- Eric Gordon (6 of 12)
- PJ Tucker (4 of 7)
- James Harden (4 of 8)
- Robert Covington (4 of 8)
- Danuel House Jr. (3 of 7)
- Russell Westbrook (1 of 7)
As you can see, everyone except Westbrook was able to punish the Lakers by hitting open shots.
If Westbrook continues to play like this, then Lakers will surely have its first Western Conference Finals appearance since 2010. It might not be a popular opinion, but Mike D’Antoni may have to take a serious look at limiting Westbrook’s minutes.
The Rockets work best when they can consistently punish the Lakers for double teaming Harden thanks to all of the open shooters. Westbrook is not a consistent three point threat, and if he can’t fulfil the secondary role of being a foul-drawing slasher and ball handler, then the Rockets are going to have a bad time for the rest of this series.