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Lakers newsletter: Time for Lakers to deal with the Houston Rockets’ red glare

Rockets guard James Harden is defended by Lakers forward LeBron James and guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Hi, this is Tania Ganguli, Lakers beat writer for the Los Angeles Times, here with your Lakers newsletter.

Last night after a bizarre ending to Game 7 between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets, the Lakers finally got a second-round opponent. They’ll play the Rockets.

The Lakers got together last night for a team dinner that coincided with the game.

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Coach Frank Vogel was asked before the Houston-OKC Game 7 if he learned anything from the seeding games against the Rockets and Thunder. He noted that the Lakers lost both of those games and said the lesson is anyone can beat you. The thing is, when the Lakers played the Rockets in the bubble, they were resting LeBron James and they didn’t play JaVale McGee.

This series will be different, sure, but the Rockets have proved to be a problem for the Lakers. They split their non-bubble games this season with the Lakers winning in Houston and the Rockets winning in Los Angeles behind 41 points from Russell Westbrook.

The Lakers will have to contend with the Rockets’ smaller lineups, which often feature no player over 6-foot-7, something they have intermittently worked on throughout the regular season. Vogel also says they have plenty in their arsenal that we haven’t seen yet.

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A difficult start

The first round was especially long this season because of the three-day break in games while the players grappled with how to return to play after they joined the Milwaukee Bucks’ protest on Aug. 26.

That was a trying week for the players, who have felt emotionally drained by several high-profile instances of police brutality, excessive force and police killing Black people at a higher rate than other races. Each instance has caused Black players to think to their own experiences with police or racial profiling as kids or adults and the fear in their community of the police, many of them have said. Those feelings resurfaced when video spread of a police officer in Kenosha, Wis., shooting a 29-year-old Black man named Jacob Blake in the back multiple times.

“It just makes you go back to your childhood and remember why you were afraid,’ Anthony Davis said.

LeBron James, Davis and Kyle Kuzma spoke about their reactions. James and Davis talked specifically about their interactions with police throughout their childhoods on Monday night after Game 4 against the Trail Blazers.

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It’s a complicated issue for the players. They know police officers or former officers — people who often are hired to do NBA security and grow very close with the players given all the time they spend together. Kuzma said they do talk about those issues.

“At the end of the day, just like the NBA, it’s a brotherhood, so you just stand up for your own a lot,” Kuzma said. “But the talks I’ve had with good policemen, it’s about the training aspect, that’s the biggest thing.”

I’ll have more about what happened last week down below.

Inside the bubble

Here’s a bit of a weird bubble situation: While the other three second-round series will take place between teams all living at the Gran Destino Tower, the Rockets and Thunder were both staying in the Grand Floridian Hotel. Rather than force them to move to the Gran Destino Tower, the NBA is allowing the Rockets to stay there and have the whole resort to themselves.

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The Yacht Club, where the bubble’s bottom six teams had stayed, was removed from the bubble after the play-in game. The Portland Trail Blazers, its only surviving team, moved up to the Grand Floridan Hotel. The Yacht Club is now open to the public.

(This is also relevant to media and guests because the Grand Floridian Hotel is where guided fishing trips are available and once it closes, that activity will be gone.)

Seven of the teams still in the playoffs are staying at the Gran Destino, where they’ve been throughout the restart. Before the conference semifinal round, the only two teams from the Gran Destino who were in a series against each other were the Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz. It led to some unusual interactions between the two teams during a tense seven-game series.

At the end of Game 7, as Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell lay on the ground devastated at the result, Nuggets guard Jamal Murray ran over to help pick him up. The two shared some words and an embrace. Later that night, Danny Green of the Lakers spotted the two future stars spending more time together at the hotel.

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“I was outside just getting my little daily stroll on at night, or whatever, messing with the cornhole [game], and Jamal Murray and Donovan Mitchell were actually talking last night quite a bit,” Green said. “You saw a lot of Utah and Denver guys talking and chopping it up after a hard-fought series. It’s something that you don’t really see, or get a chance to do, or happens often in the regular season. …

“They’re obviously friends, so they got a chance to actually chop it up and it was an amazing series and something that’s going to be remembered forever.”

Since we last spoke ...

  • The NBA world was on high alert for the Trail Blazers to make life difficult for the Lakers in the first round and Game 1 fed that narrative. By Game 3, our Bill Plaschke was ready to declare the series over.
  • Aug. 23 was Kobe Bryant’s birthday. Aug. 24 is a date on which he’s honored — a nod to the two numbers he wore in his career — 8 and 24. The player on the Lakers with perhaps the closest relationship to Bryant was Anthony Davis, and I spoke with him and others about the ways in which they still feel Bryant is here.

  • The Lakers honored Bryant on 8-24 in a way Bryant would have appreciated — by ruthlessly crushing their opponent.

  • Throughout the bubble, there were rumblings of players not wanting to continue playing after seeing the video of the Jacob Blake shooting. Few thought that would actually happen. The Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors played a game even after discussing it.
  • Then, on Wednesday, everything changed. The Bucks, and specifically Bucks guard George Hill, became unexpected catalysts for pausing the bubble. The first thing NBA players did was throw their support behind the Bucks. The next thing they did was, behind closed doors, demand answers from a Bucks team that neither consulted anyone else nor shared their plans nor had an idea for how to proceed.
  • Eventually, they decided to continue playing. But not before LeBron James threatened to walk out on the season. My colleague, Broderick Turner, and I detailed what exactly happened and how the Lakers ultimately came to a consensus that they wanted to continue playing.
  • After the players decided to resume the playoffs, they met virtually with the league’s owners. Jeanie Buss was the Lakers’ representative on the call. The players received some commitments from the owners that they later said made them feel comfortable in returning to play. One of those commitments was to turn arenas into voting centers, which the Lakers then sponsored for Los Angeles to do with Staples Center.
  • Our Dylan Hernandez notes that this isn’t over. Anthony Davis warned that if the owners renege on their commitments, then the players will just sit out again.

Until next time...

As always, pass along your thoughts to me at tania.ganguli@latimes.com, and please consider subscribing if you like our work!

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