The Houston Rockets will play the Lakers, but they took the scenic route to get there. It looked like they would walk right through the Oklahoma City Thunder through the first two games of their first-round series.
Houston won both games handily, despite missing Russell Westbrook in both contests while also getting a poor shooting performance from James Harden in Game 2.
But the Thunder fought back, winning three of the next four games to force a Game 7. Harden struggled yet again in the series finale, but the Rockets managed to eke out a narrow victory thanks to some tough defense down the stretch.
Now, the Rockets face the daunting task of going against the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference: the Los Angeles Lakers.
Interestingly enough, the Rockets are 2-0 against L.A. since trading for Robert Covington and going to a small-ball look, including a win over the Lakers on Aug. 6 (though LeBron James did not play).
Houston will need a total team effort to get past a Laker team that cruised past the Portland Trail Blazers after a slight hiccup in Game 1. It would be easy to say Westbrook is an X-factor given his health and poor fourth-quarter play against the Thunder. The same can essentially be said for Harden.
However, the Rockets will demand more out of their role players than ever before, and P.J. Tucker will also face the immense challenge of being Houston’s primary interior defender against a red-hot Anthony Davis.
Muck things up inside
Tucker’s toughness hardly needs any evaluating. He was ready to come to blows with Dennis Schroder after getting leveled with a cheap shot below the belt in Game 5.
But Tucker will need to find a new level of toughness for the Rockets against the Lakers.
Los Angeles will almost certainly counter Houston’s small-ball roster by getting Anthony Davis post touches early and often. Tucker will almost certainly have help on post entries, but he will still need good positioning and leverage inside to keep Davis from getting in deep and racking up easy layups.
It will also be imperative to keep AD off the free-throw line. Davis scored 32 points during the Rockets’ win over the Lakers in February, but he had just five attempts from the charity stripe.
The Rockets also held Davis to a mere eight field goal attempts in their win over the Lakers on Aug. 6. If they can keep his attempts down, they stand a good chance at winning. Tucker will be a big piece in terms of being scrappy and making things tougher.
Tucker can also help the Rockets immensely simply by providing the fundamentals, like boxing out and allowing Westbrook and Harden to crash hard.
How have the Rockets beaten the Lakers in each of their last two meetings? With the three-point shot, of course.
Houston made well over 40 percent of its attempts in February, then took a whopping 57 triples against the Lakers during their matchup in the seeding games.
The three-ball will loom large once again, and the Rockets will need Tucker to cash in on his opportunities.
Houston–as a team–shot nearly 36 percent from beyond the arc against the Thunder. Tucker shot 37.2 percent, though it is more telling when he saw the most volume.
Tucker made three of his eight treys in a Game 1 victory, then made all four of his tries in Game 2 with Harden struggling tremendously.
The rest of the series was a mixed bag in terms of Tucker’s shooting, but it is clear he unlocks a different element to their offense when he can find space to launch threes, especially from his favorite corner spot. Indeed, Tucker is shooting over 42 percent on right corner threes, per NBA.com.
Tucker’s efficiency–or lack thereof–will play a massive role in drawing Davis and L.A.’s other rim protectors out to the perimeter. That should open up the lane for Harden and Westbrook, who excel at exploiting individual matchups and getting to the rim.
Whereas a number of stars will be on the floor in this series, the Rocket’s most important players is a guy who excels at doing the dirty work and making himself a presentable offensive option.
Tucker must check both those boxes if the Rockets hope to advance to the conference finals.