BY DAVID THORPE
Forget James Harden vs. LeBron James. When it comes to understanding the Rockets vs. the Lakers, my attention is locked on P.J. Tucker. The Rockets’ undersized big man will be asked to find ways to counteract the Lakers’ much taller Anthony Davis—the NBA’s best non-primary ball handler since Tim Duncan. If the Rockets are going to have any chance to beat the Lakers four games in seven, Tucker must be extraordinary.
Bleacher Report @BleacherReportAnthony Davis vs. PJ Tucker in the conference semifinals 🍿 https://t.co/33lG0TaxqF
Besides hitting some of his patented corner 3s, here’s what I believe Tucker has to do:
This must not be lob city
Things are beautiful for the Lakers when Davis is flying on the break. The remedy: Race back on defense and prevent the early lob from LeBron. Sometimes this pass comes from 75 feet away, when Davis sprints the court and seals his man to one side, or just beats him down the floor like a seven-foot-tall wide receiver catching the touchdown pass. LeBron is always looking for this, a lesson he learned when current teammate Rajon Rondo played with Davis in New Orleans.
Other times, LeBron flies at the rim with the ball and some pace. When he draws help, Davis lurks, ever-ready to jump and dunk a pass. Tucker has to get in the middle of this and use his powerful body to throw off Davis’s ability to get near that rim. LeBron’s pace and passing talents combined with Davis’ ability to catch a pass over 12 feet in the air and then finish it make LA an elite fastbreak team. But there are ways to muck that up. The Miami Heat are doing this well against the Milwaukee Bucks and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
No easy dunks off post ups
Tucker will undoubtedly try to draw some offensive fouls, but that’s a lot tougher against Davis than most opponents. Davis is not just huge but also a fine, well balanced athlete. He is so good at spinning while gaining leverage from contact with the defender that does not look like a foul. (Giannis, in these moments, tends to put his elbows into his opponents neck or jaw.) If Tucker tries to take the charge, he may end up on the floor watching Davis hammer dunk.
Instead of hitting the deck, Tucker can try to get Davis to attack at an angle that takes him below the imaginary line where the low post “block” once was and the center of the rim. That would make using the backboard harder, and result in a finicky touch shot. Few defenders in the league can redirect Davis better than Tucker can. The problem: Davis is an elite scorer, and will just as likely square up and shoot over Tucker, about seven inches smaller, and make more than half those shots. Last week we wrote about how NBA defenses are like gamblers playing blackjack. Forcing Davis to take mid-range 2-pointers is the best the Rockets can hope for. It won’t be enough to win, but it’ll help.
Don’t get hypnotized by LeBron
This is what will keep Tucker and Head Coach Mike D’Antoni up most nights: a basic pick and roll or a quick slip screen or “ghost” screen (Davis veers away from actually setting the screen) featuring Davis and LeBron in a two-man game. As LeBron occupies Tucker with his patient drive, Davis flies to the rim and soars up for a lob dunk. They do this in early offense, when defenders tend to be least alert to that kind of action. Or they run “false motion” to occupy weakside defenders before quickly getting into this exact action. Of course the other Rockets defenders have to have a hand in this, or rather both feet and their bodies, trying to clog Davis’ path to the rim. But if the Lakers shooters are on, they will use “gravity” to draw their own men to them, leaving Tucker and whoever is guarding LeBron the problem.
Tucker would be wise to play LeBron FOR THE PASS, especially in the first game. Against the Blazers, we saw LeBron open the series more interested in being a facilitator and it really hurt his team. As he got more aggressive, his team followed and the rout was on. It’s possible this will happen again Friday night, and if it does, Tucker can bait LeBron to lob the ball while quickly sliding into Davis’ path to the rim. Later he can do this to LeBron again, only this time he can step into LeBron’s path for a charge. Tucker will make these kinds of moves. The Lakers stars are already discussing it in their strategy sessions. If Tucker can WALL OFF either scorer from easy rim runs for dunks, he will go a long way to making the Lakers a perimeter-based team. Having the Lakers take and miss far more 3s than they usually do is Houston’s only hope of winning this series.
Tucker and Davis played twice this year. It seems so long ago. Davis made a mistake in those games: He often allowed himself to post up below the block. Davis wants to go to the middle, but if you start that low, Tucker is too powerful. That buys time for a second defender to arrive if it seems Davis might get past Tucker.
Davis can easily fix this. His simple square up-jump shots are good enough if he tires of waiting for a lob pass off a ball screen or penetration.
The Rockets got away with being a small team against OKC because Steven Adams isn’t a primary scorer. Davis is, and then some. And that’s a primary reason I believe the Lakers will win the series.
One possibility we might see from Houston in Game 1—treat all the Lakers players like they are Luguentz Dort. No Rockets player paid much attention to Dort when he was behind the 3-point line, and until Game 7, the strategy worked. Dort made seven of his first 38 3s. This is more or less what Spurs did to LeBron and the Heat the year of Ray Allen’s corner 3 saved the Finals. It worked for a few games until Miami’s shooters got more aggressive. Given how exhausted the Rockets must be after their seven-game series against the Thunder, and witnessing the Nuggets die in front of our eyes after just 15 game minutes against the Clippers, having Rockets defenders just hang inside the key area hoping to cut off any cutters and drivers might save a lot of energy. If the Lakers shooters are on and the game gets ugly, Houston can always just rest their guys and get ready for Game 2.
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