Scouting Update: Rockets-Lakers G6
The Los Angeles Lakers came into Game 5 with some obvious plans: pound the Houston Rockets inside, contain Aaron Brooks more with their bigs on ball screens, defend the weak side better and play with a lot more focus. Check, check, check and check. The Lakers were far sharper in their attention to detail, and this caused major problems for the Rockets, partly because they failed to be as sharp in their execution. Game 5 looked like what Game 4 should have, and it gave L.A. a strong glimpse of what Game 6 can be.
• In general, Houston has to come up with some new strategies and execute far better on the ones it employs -- particularly on its offensive ball-screen action. So effective in Game 4, it melted in L.A. thanks to what often was very poor contact on the screen. The ball handlers did not drive with urgency around their screener, nor did they run their defender into the screen. This allowed the guard defender not to need much help in staying with his man and kept the Lakers from having to scramble much to recover. At the same time, the Rockets' bigs seemed rushed, and they rarely stayed big and strong long enough for the screening action to work. Setting strong screens is a must for Houston in Game 6.
• The Lakers changed up their tactics some on ball screens, leaving the big defending the screener on side pick-and-rolls, back in containment. They wanted Brooks to see that big guy hanging around the rim and hoped it would slow his penetration down. It did, with Brooks often taking the jump shot (which was there only if he used the screen correctly) or passing it back out. And this is where the second part of Houston's offense failed. L.A. sent its helpers out to the shooters early, often trying to take the pass away altogether. It worked perfectly, helping to force 17 Rockets' turnovers and earning 24 fast-break points. To counter this, Houston will widen its side ball screens, to create more space for L.A. to cover, then have its receivers cut hard to the rim if they are not open initially. Moving targets are much harder to guard than stationary ones.
• One benefit for the Lakers of having their bigs stay back to contain on ball screens was that it invited the Rockets' guards to shoot the pull-up jumper. This meant that they didn't swing the ball back to Luis Scola (when he was the guy setting the screen). That's a mistake for Houston. Scola might be their best weapon in the half-court offense. Not because of his scoring ability but because of what he does with the ball as a passer and shooter.
• Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom still aggressively played high ball screens in the center of the floor, and this allows some penetration opportunities for Houston's guards. It also opens the floor up more than the side ball screens do. Seeing a lot more of these and fewer of the side versions seems likely for Game 6.
• Houston got pummeled inside with all three of the Lakers bigs, and it must consider sending more help down to the blocks when any of them have the ball. The Rockets often allowed those guys to play one-on-one inside. Doubling more just helped curb their scoring, as it might also get them to foul less with guys such as Chuck Hayes or Scola. Houston just doesn't have the depth to deal with that. That strategy risks giving up more 3 balls, but that's the poison the Rockets have to pick.
• Giving up full-court Kobe Bryant drives -- down the middle for an easy layup -- is simply not excusable. Allowing it more than once, like in Game 5, can not happen.
• Houston ran much of its offense through Ron Artest, who shot 4-for-15 and had four turnovers to just one assist. Putting the ball back into Brooks' hands makes more sense.
• L.A. played as well as Houston had in Game 4, and it can expect a very different Game 6 (just as Houston saw a very different Game 5). Although the Lakers were far more aware of help-side responsibilities on Rockets ball-screen action, Houston still got great looks when it executed. The Rockets just didn't capitalize on those looks (5-for-29 from 3). L.A. must expect Houston to shoot better and steel itself for a tough fight. Wilting, as it did in Game 4, is a mental issue, not a physical one.
• The Rockets like to seal off weakside defenders to open up a 3-point shot from the wing or corner. L.A. defenders should be more aware of this, now that Houston is looking to take more long shots.
• The Lakers have shown a lack of purpose on offense numerous times this postseason, so being locked into a game plan that features Gasol all game is a must. Houston has no answer for him if Gasol is shooting well, and L.A. won't know how sharp Gasol is without getting him ample touches. He makes Bynum better, too, with his excellent post-to-post passing skills.
• In general, L.A. attacked from every position on the floor, and this helped it earn 36 free throws. Despite being on the road and likely not getting as many of those calls, it's still a sound strategy to repeat.
• With its back against the wall, will this super-gritty team be able to crush L.A. on the backboards again?
• The Lakers have put together a strong five-quarter run. Will they stay sharp or lose the edge the Game 4 beatdown gave them?
• Gasol and Bynum -- will they dominate the paint again?
It is no surprise that L.A. needed a game to readjust after Yao Ming went down. The surprise was how little the Lakers competed after he went down in that first game. Getting smacked was a gift, and it got L.A. recognizing how special this Houston team is. Special, but still wildly outmanned now. The Lakers are back in a groove, and they should finish the series.
Prediction: L.A. wins Game 6.
David Thorpe is an NBA analyst for Scouts Inc. and the executive director of the Pro Training Center in Clearwater, Fla., where he oversees the player development program for more than 40 NBA, European and D-League players. Those players include Kevin Martin, Rob Kurz, Luol Deng, Courtney Lee and Tyrus Thomas. To e-mail him, click here.
Synergy Sports Technology systems were used in the preparation of this report.
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