The Western Conference Finals are within reach for the Los Angeles Lakers as they face the Houston Rockets in Game 5. But L.A. still has some work to do, as exemplified by Houston’s baffling 22-4 run late in the fourth quarter.
It was not the first time the Lakers recorded a significant dip in intensity and concentration this series, allowing Houston to come back from the dead. L.A. held a 67-51 halftime lead over the Rockets in Game 2 and, similarly, let it evaporate in less than three minutes into the third quarter.
The Lakers have plenty of reasons to be happy where they are right now. Head coach Frank Vogel has yet again proved to be a tactical mastermind, capable of implementing rotation adjustments that can change the course of a series.
His changes resulted in another three-game winning streak following a Game 1 loss and, most recently, his small-ball experiment on Thursday was a success.
LeBron James and Anthony Davis are rising to the occasion in their first postseason together; the All-Star tandem averages 55.5 points per game, complementing each other on offense and impressing on the defensive end.
And Lakers role players keep providing their superstars with an invaluable support system. In Game 2 and Game 3, Rajon Rondo stepped up and commanded the offense alongside James, reigniting the “Playoff Rondo” debate. In Game 4, Alex Caruso chipped in 16 points and sank the crucial three, dealing the final blow to Houston’s comeback hopes.
Not to mention the occasional outbursts of Kyle Kuzma and Markieff Morris — or Talen Horton-Tucker’s fearless playoff debut.
The Lakers are the bubble’s third-best offense and fifth in defense. L.A. also score the most first-quarter points (30.8) and hold the best net rating (13.7) in the first 12 minutes — an interesting turnaround considering their tendency to start slow during the seeding part of the NBA restart.
And aside from the bizarre late run, Houston looked really flat for the majority of Game 4. However, it’s imperative that the Lakers avoid complacency. It is not unheard of to come back from a 3-1 series deficit in the NBA Playoffs.
Especially as those drops in concentration and fourth-quarter slumps are concerning and there seems to be more to it than meets the eye.
Despite strong starts, the Lakers average just 24.1 points in the final period this postseason, the fourth-worst return in the bubble. And their net rating drops to an average -4.7.
And who’s been the bubble’s kings of the fourth quarter? The Miami Heat and L.A. Clippers, the potential next-round opponents, standing in their way to claim the Larry O’Brien trophy.
The Lakers are without a doubt in pole position to reach the conference final spot for the first time since 2010 — when they won their last championship.
But there are things they still need to figure out. The good news? Vogel and his Lakers have seemingly mastered the craft of problem-solving and impressed with their roster flexibility and tactical creativity on numerous occasions this season.
L.A. will surely hope to fix their focus issues as early as for Game 5: to end the series on a high note and be best prepared for the looming Battle for Los Angeles in the conference finals.
The Rockets again will be without Danuel House Jr. as he was sent home due to violating protocols in the bubble.
Rockets (1-3) vs. Lakers (3-1)
5:00 p.m. PT, Sep. 12, 2020
ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, Orlando, Florida
Radio: 710 AM ESPN LA
Projected Lakers Starting Lineup:
PG: LeBron James
SG: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
SF: Danny Green
PF: Anthony Davis
C: Markieff Morris
Key Reserves: Kyle Kuzma, Alex Caruso, Rajon Rondo, JaVale McGee
Projected Rockets Starting Lineup:
PG: Russell Westbrook
SG: James Harden
SF: Eric Gordon
PF: Robert Covington
C: PJ Tucker
Key Reserves: Jeff Green, Ben McLemore, Austin Rivers
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