Rockets plan to escape Lakers’ traps and zones

Rockets guard Russell Westbrook did not wait for Monday’s video session, did not need the day’s practice to start making the corrections.

Late Sunday, Westbrook was in James Harden’s Grand Floridian hotel room to talk over the Game 2 loss. This was not so much to find a master plan to solve the riddle of the Lakers’ defense. But the stars who drive the Rockets’ offense and their hopes needed just to talk.

“We hold each other accountable,” Harden said. “That’s a weight we have on our shoulders. But then, we’re here to help each other, as well.

“Communication and talking and trying to figure things out. Ways I can help and ways he can help me and ways we can help our team as a collective. He came to my room last night just to talk basketball and ways we can be better. And we will be better. That’s one thing about both of us. We’re both competitors. We’re going to have bounce-back games.”

The Rockets will need that from Westbrook especially given the Lakers’ plan to double-team and trap Harden, often leaving open the other half of the Rockets’ one-two backcourt punch.

Westbrook indicated he would have to figure some things out when he said after Monday’s loss, “Right now, I’m just running around.” But there was nothing new about the Lakers’ defense, even with the zone that the Rockets were initially slow to counter.

The Rockets have spent the season finding ways to attack teams that devote two players to defending Harden, usually with Westbrook attacking four-on-three after Harden gives up the ball.

Westbrook had all but excised 3-pointers from his repertoire during the regular season. He took seven or more 3s in a game eight times in the first two months of the season. He never took seven in a game after Christmas, including the February night he burned the Lakers for 41 points. He went 1 of 7 on 3s on Sunday.

His 10 points were the third-fewest he has scored in 103 career playoff games. Of his seven turnovers, five were particularly damaging live ball turnovers that ignited the Lakers’ break.

Westbrook has made just 12 of 42 jumpers (28.7 percent) in the postseason, just 3 of 18 3-pointers (16.7 percent) and just 7 of 15 free throws (46.7 percent.) The Rockets likely will need that to turn around but also need Westbrook’s energy and athleticism. His 13 rebounds on Sunday were key to the Rockets matching the Lakers’ 11 second-chance points. Offensively, coach Mike D’Antoni said he needs Westbrook to “just be himself.”

Beyond that, the Rockets did not seem terribly concerned that the Lakers are the latest team to go to zones and traps against them.

“Different teams have tried it, definitely,” D’Antoni said. “We showed them a couple things we could have done a little bit better. But zones are what they are. It’s a desperation thing. I’m not a big believer in it.

“I think offensively we should kill it. We didn’t last night. We didn’t get into some spots we talked about. We’ll do a better job against it the rest of the time.”

It should help that the Rockets have seen similar defenses enough — though the Lakers were especially adept at mixing up at what point in the possession they sent the trap — to adjust quickly.

“You look at the game, we did it then,” D’Antoni said. “We were down (21) to up five in a blink. We were doing it right. Then, we made some decisions that weren’t great. It happens, … but we know how to attack it. We’ll be more prepared (and) we hope to be able to attack it. We showed them examples of when we did it right it was great, when we did it wrong it was bad. It’s just a matter of trying to make those decisions on the run.”

The Rockets’ starting lineup played well overall, with a net rating of plus-30.2, scoring at a rate of 123.3 points per 100 possessions in Game 2. But in the fourth quarter, playing the last five minutes together, the Rockets scored eight points, an offensive rating of just 80 points per 100 possessions. In a sample size that small, a few missed shots can dramatically change an offensive rating, but that struggle also pointed to the issues that will have to be corrected.

The Rockets pledged that they will.

“We’re so good that teams have to throw in zones or throw in traps,” Harden said. “We just got to do what we do. A zone or a trap should get us more excited because we’re going to have more shot opportunities. Guys that are around me and Russ are going to have more shot opportunities and keep going offensively. That’s what we want because offensively, Russ is able to get any shot he wants to at any time.

“We watched film on the traps and the zones and ways we can attack it. (Tuesday), we’ll be better at it.”

The Rockets might not have needed the video session to reach the same conclusion, likely having declared as much in at least one hotel room in the early morning hours.

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