The Los Angeles Lakers got past the Houston Rockets in only five games.
For the first time since the Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol title-winning team of 2010, the Los Angeles Lakers are in the Western Conference Finals.
After dropping the opening game for the second consecutive playoff series, the Lakers did to the Houston Rockets what they did to the Portland Trail Blazers in the previous round, rattling off four straight wins en route to a 4-1 series win.
So, how and why did the Lakers so handily beat a team that many talking heads predicted would cause them immense problems?
1. Frank Vogel’s adjustments
Throughout his career, Frank Vogel has been known as a good-not-great coach. He’s had some previous success, taking the Paul George-led Indiana Pacers to consecutive Eastern Conference Finals in 2012-13 and 2013-14.
However, the biggest knock on him has been how slow he is to make adjustments, both in the flow of a game and with his gameplans. His refusal to adjust to the Miami Heat’s small-ball lineups (with Chris Bosh at the 5 and Rashard Lewis at the 4) in the 2014 series was a major critique of his tenure.
When the Lakers got blown out after game 1, I didn’t panic but I was curious as to how Vogel would adjust moving forward.
After being eviscerated by James Harden in the series opener, Vogel’s scheme for game 2 saw the introduction of aggressive double teams every time he touched the ball.
According to BBall Index, throughout the regular season, Harden was in the 42nd percentile for off-ball movement, and that trend appeared to continue throughout the series, as he looked lost when he didn’t have the ball. By forcing the ball out of his hands, the Laker defense not only made Harden a passenger but forced the other less-dangerous Rockets players to make a play.
After getting blitzed to the tune of a 114.7 defensive rating in game one, the adjustment to double team Harden was a big reason why the Lakers had a combined 104.9 defensive rating over the last four games of the series.
The other great adjustment that Vogel made this series was his willingness to deviate from his usual rotations, something that would never have happened in his Indiana Pacers days.
The Houston Rockets present a unique challenge for NBA coaches. With the tallest player in their rotation being the 6’7″ Robert Covington, they’re arguably running the most vertically challenged rotation in NBA history.
In the regular season, the Lakers played their two tall centers, Javale McGee and Dwight Howard, a combined 35 minutes per game on average. However, due to the Rockets’ lack of size, Vogel recognized that they’d both be a liability on defense this series, thus limiting their total combined series minutes to 46 (many of which came in garbage time of game 5).
On the other hand, Markieff Morris and Talen Horton-Tucker were rarely used in games during the regular season. However, both are lengthy and versatile defenders who excel in a switch-heavy scheme, leading to Frank Vogel starting the former and give the latter key minutes in both games 4 and 5. Both made strong contributions in their minutes, especially ‘Kieff, who provided the Lakers with an outside shooting spark that would often be lacking in the regular season.
When the Lakers hired Frank Vogel in the offseason, my primary concern was that during the playoffs, he’d stubbornly stick to his regular-season gameplan. However, I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve been proven wrong. He has shown that he’s not afraid to make in-series adjustments and the results have been outstanding.