LeBron James is usually at least a little subtle about his gripes with teammates or his organization. He’ll subtweet. His body language will speak louder than words. But on Friday, as he attempted only three shots in a scoreless fourth quarter of a Game 1 loss to the Houston Rockets, he was explicit.
It came around two-and-a-half minutes into the quarter. Trailing by 12, James got the ball with Jeff Green in his face. The other four Rockets on the floor stood in formation at the baseline, ready to converge on his dribble. LeBron took three dribbles, and was summarily met by three Houston defenders at the rim. A fourth, ostensibly guarding the corner, managed to get a swipe in. The ball went out of bounds. James, looking in the direction of coach Frank Vogel, appeared to say “there’s no spacing.”
That was the story of Game 1. The Lakers, fresh off a series against Portland in which they found their missing shooting stroke, abandoned it willingly against the Rockets. Playing against the most dangerous shooting opponent in basketball, Vogel’s lineup decisions seemed to ignore shooting entirely.
In the first round, Houston outscored Oklahoma City by 50 points in the 210 minutes that its true center, Steven Adams, was on the floor. This is not a matchup for most big men. The Rockets shoot them off the floor. Yet the Lakers still started JaVale McGee despite their current starting lineup posting a negative net rating across 300 regular-season minutes. They played McGee and Dwight Howard for 24 total minutes, half of the game against an opponent that never uses big men, and then they exacerbated the problems with their choices around those two.
To start the second quarter, for instance, the Lakers played LeBron at shooting guard. Rajon Rondo, a career 31.6 percent 3-point shooter, was his point guard. Kyle Kuzma and Markieff Morris, who have hit 33.8 percent of their career long-distance attempts, were his forwards. Howard, who has made nine 3-pointers in 16 seasons, was his center. No player in history has ever maximized shooters better than LeBron, and the Lakers thought it was a good idea to put him in a lineup with zero league-average shooters. Predictably, this led to the sort of clogged lanes LeBron saw above. In the best-case scenarios, he was met with a second defender at the basket.
More often, he had to abandon drives altogether because of the numbers of bodies standing between him and the basket. When he kicked it out to the lesser shooters Vogel put on the floor with him, they missed.
This was especially problematic for Rondo. Technically, he made two of his five 3-point attempts. The trouble came in calculating the cost of those threes, which are unlikely to repeat themselves anyway. Just as the Rockets did to Lu Dort in the first round, they hardly even pretended to guard Rondo on his shot attempts, preferring instead to overload the paint.
Oklahoma City offered few such reprieves. The majority of its players can shoot. The majority of Lakers players, at least those who saw meaningful minutes in Game 1, can’t. Exclude James and Anthony Davis, as their minutes are unassailable. Of the 166 remaining minutes available, a staggering 107 went to players who shot below the 35.8 percent NBA average on 3-pointers this season.
There are theoretical tradeoffs to sacrificing this much shooting. Teams as big as the Lakers are supposed to own the rebounding battle. They’re supposed to dominate the paint. For all Rondo lacks as a shooter, he is supposed to make up for it with playmaking (and, if you ask Vogel, swag). The same is true of Alex Caruso, especially in this matchup, where his defense is less valuable against the bigger James Harden.
But here’s the rub: the Lakers won none of those areas in Game 1. They finished with 41 rebounds. The Rockets finished with 41 rebounds. They finished with 40 points in the paint. The Rockets finished with 42. The Lakers offense, complete with the league assist leader in LeBron and a great passer in Rondo, had only 18 assists and 15 turnovers. The Rockets, 29th in assists per game this season, had 19 dimes and 14 turnovers. The Rockets beat the Lakers at everything their roster is designed to do, and they didn’t have to sacrifice an ounce of spacing to do it.
There could be no greater endorsement for their playing style than that. The vaunted Lakers were the very opponent that was supposed to smother it. Instead, the Rockets managed to completely control the terms of engagement. This series is going to be played their way. And it’s time for the Lakers to embrace that. Their lineup choices need to be made in an effort to keep up with the Rockets, not bully them.
James and Davis are, again, unassailable. Every spot around them should be subject to review. Danny Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who struggled in Game 1 but are both strongly above league average for the season, need to play more than 28 minutes apiece. The centers should combine for significantly less than their 24. A basic swap in the name of spacing would be to give Jared Dudley, a career 39.3 percent 3-point shooter, Morris’ minutes. Morris is the better defender, but neither fits well in this matchup given their lack of mobility. If defense is going to be a problem either way, the Lakers should at least take the offensive boost Dudley can provide.
And then there’s the Rondo problem. Vogel has stood by him all season, consistently giving him 20 minutes of playing time despite the heaps of evidence suggesting he shouldn’t. The Lakers were 8.1 points per 100 possessions better with Rondo on the bench before his injury. His ability to run a bench offense is based entirely on reputation, as the Lakers scored at the rate of the 21st-ranked Memphis Grizzlies offense with him on the floor this season. The swag battle was visibly won by the opposing point guard.
The simple solution here is give his minutes, at least the ones LeBron spends on the bench, to Dion Waiters, who thrived in Rondo’s role during the seeding games. The Lakers were a staggering 14 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor during their seeding games than they were with him on the bench. Though not an elite shooter, gravity isn’t as simple as a mere shooting percentage. Defenses respect his shot because they know he’ll take them, and they think of him as such a scorer that they collapse on his drives in ways that open up shots for everybody else.
The argument against playing Waiters, to this point, has been his defense. Well, look at Rondo’s in Game 1.
The Rockets aren’t the Blazers. The Lakers can’t afford to fritter away minutes and games because of misplaced notions of identity or swag. They have to put their best players in a position to win. LeBron himself made it perfectly clear that the Lakers didn’t do that in Game 1. The key to changing that in Game 2 is a greater emphasis on shooting.