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Lakers-Rockets preview: Force of wills when tall meets small

Lakers forward LeBron James, left, and coach Frank Vogel walk onto the court during a timeout.
Lakers forward LeBron James and coach Frank Vogel walk onto the court during a timeout against the Portland Trail Blazers.
(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

LeBron James mentioned four things when he was asked what he’d been doing between playoff series.

“Training. Video games. Working on my body. And drinking wine.”

What he did not do during the last week was dwell on what went wrong in the Lakers’ first-round series. There wasn’t much, but Game 1 certainly did.

“It hasn’t been discussed,” James said of a loss to eighth-seeded Portland. “Up until this point. It could be brought up between now and tomorrow night, but it has not been discussed. We understood and we knew from the sense of all of the eight seeding games for Portland were playoff games. They didn’t have the opportunity to kind of get back into a rhythm to see what they had, they knew they had to go right away.”

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What James described about the Trail Blazers could also apply to the Lakers’ next opponent, the Houston Rockets, who just completed a strenuous first-round series that went to seven games against the Oklahoma City Thunder. With one day’s rest, they’ll have to face a Lakers team that loves to run starting Friday night.

“I actually think that teams that play a Game 7 in the next series, going against a team that has been off, I think has the advantage,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “Because your senses are sharper, you’re playing in that environment where every possession matters. And I actually think that’s a better way to prepare for a series than a week of practices.”

Lakers should prepare for anything in their playoff series against the Houston Rockets. Look at the Milwaukee Bucks.

If there is further reason for Vogel to worry about the Rockets, it’s not because the Lakers lost to Houston during their seeding game in the bubble. That game didn’t include James or guard Rajon Rondo, who is probable for Friday’s game. That seeding game also did not include Russell Westbrook, who was recovering from a hamstring injury.

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Vogel’s better sample came before the COVID-19 hiatus, when the Rockets debuted their small lineup experiment in a game against the Lakers on Feb. 6. P.J. Tucker, traditionally a forward, was their center in that game Houston won by 10 points.

The Rockets intend for their smaller lineups to be an advantage. The Lakers, though, have typically used their superior height to their advantage. They are hoping to be able to do that in this series.

“We want to make them adjust to us, the same way they try to have teams adjust to them playing small ball,” Anthony Davis said. “We have to make sure that we dominate them on the offensive glass and also make them adjust to our size.”

Davis guarded Westbrook during their February contest, and while Westbrook scored 41 points that game, “it wasn’t all on Anthony,” Vogel said.

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“Some were on Anthony. But like I said we were doing a lot of double-teaming and scrambling, we were poor in transition. So we’ll see what the matchups look like tomorrow night, but this team, you still have a player on the floor you identify as their center. We play against teams every night that have a seven-foot center shooting threes. So the fact that player is 6-6 now isn’t that different for our bigs to cover.”

In the wake of the Jacob Blake shooting, LeBron James and other Lakers players spoke about the impact police brutality has made on Black people in the U.S.

James also dismissed the idea that the Rockets’ unusual lineups were something that would cause too many problems for the Lakers. He noted that he has faced teams before where everyone on the court is a shooter.

He does have a healthy amount of respect for Rockets guards James Harden and Westbrook, both former league MVPs. When he chose an All-Star team as captain of the West, they were on it.

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“What gets lost in translation with James is how available he is to his teammates,” James said. “He’s always been in uniform and he’s been doing this at a high level for a lot of years. I think that’s what kind of gets lost in translation because everybody kinda looks at euro step and step-back threes, but if you’re available to your teammates, that’s gigantic to any sport or any craft or anything that you’re doing in life. If you’re just available to someone, they know they can always count on you.

“… With Russ, he’s just an assassin. I mean, he’s full throttle and he could care less what anyone thinks about his game. … They’re two great basketball players, two really good guys, great guys, more importantly. They just do what they do, they go out and take of their business and they pretty much don’t care what anyone says by just the way they play.”


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