In late July twenty-two teams and staff arrived in Orlando, Florida to re-start the NBA season that was put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic. After an 8-game seeding round to conclude the regular season, all eyes are on the playoffs. The Los Angeles Lakers have already advanced to the second round after defeating the Portland Trailblazers and are awaiting their next opponent – either the Oklahoma City Thunder, or the Houston Rockets.
The Lakers have not advanced to the conference semi-finals since the 2011-12 season. Playing from the third seed, that team squeaked by the Denver Nuggets in the first round. Los Angeles then fell to Oklahoma in five games, in what would be Kobe Bryant’s last playoff series.
According to the Sportingpedia.com NBA Betting Guide the Lakers are currently +300 to win the Western Conference, just behind the Los Angeles Clippers at +260. The Rockets can advance to the second round tonight but remain at long odds. Houston is at +1500 meaning you can win $1,500 for every $100 you wager. The Thunder need to win out just to advance and are consensus longshot at +6000.
Both the Rockets and the Thunder pose a similar threat to the Lakers in the second round of the playoffs, but in a slightly different way.
Lakers vs Thunder
The biggest question Los Angeles faced ion the bubble playoffs had to do with potential matchups with the league’s best guards. Avery Bradley who is arguably the Lakers’ best guard defender decided to not enter the bubble. Lakers coach Frank Vogel favors a heavy rotation in the backcourt. The loss of Avery leaves Los Angeles with one less player in the rotation at a position where the team isn’t all that deep.
What complicates that is that Oklahoma is a team which relies heavily on their three guards. Chris Paul, Dennis Schroder, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander are all quick and efficient. They have been playing and winning with an underdog mentality all season. Getting past the Rockets, particularly given the recent history between those two franchises could propel them to greater heights vs the Lakers.
Oklahoma probably doesn’t have enough to get past Los Angeles, but they could make it a very competitive series by winning two or even three games.
Lakers vs Rockets
The Lakers’ defensive matchup issues against the Thunder is obviously a concern. Against the Rockets it’s a five-alarm fire. Houston can go small and throw their dynamic duo of James Harden and Russell Westbrook at Los Angeles and create all types of mismatches without sacrificing too much in their own defensive end.
The Rockets will likely put P.J. Tucker on LeBron James. Tucker is a relentless defender and will make James work hard on every possession. Houston doesn’t have the big men to play the Lakers Anthony Davis very tight, but they’ll be content to allow the Lakers to rely on Davis for post-up points in the paint while they look to rain down threes from outside. That tradeoff alone will make them a pain to play against.
The small lineup would also necessitate Davis rotating to center and fewer minutes for Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee who have both been effective off the bench will largely be negated. Los Angeles will likely get good performances out of James and Davis, two superstars who bring it every night. However, the series will likely hinge on how well guys like Markieff Morris, Danny Green, and Kyle Kuzma play.
Kuzma playing well on both ends of the floor and Morris and Green being effective from outside likely means Los Angeles advances. If those three struggle, there is a chance that the Rockets pull the upset.
After dropping the first game against Portland the Lakers have found their playoff form. James and Davis are both healthy and rested. Make no mistake, they are a very good team and according to Sportpedia.com will be heavy favorites no matter which opponent they face in the second round.