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Three trends that will define the Lakers-Rockets conference semifinals series

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The beauty of an even series is that for both teams, hope is burning brightly.

The Lakers came away from their Game 2 win, a much better showing than their opening effort, believing they had finally showed what they were capable of — that they had finally understood the Rockets’ speed and made the needed adjustments to win. After a first-round bout with Portland when the Lakers went on to win four straight after a Game 1 loss, they have reason to feel a bounce in their step.

But even in a loss, so did the Rockets. After their Monday afternoon film session, James Harden said he saw a lot of zone defense and a lot of trapping, which the Rockets have seen before. His takeaway was that his Houston team is “so good,” that the Lakers had to resort to unconventional defenses to mess with the Rockets’ rhythm.

“I think last night, even though we lost, we were more confident that we have a chance,” he said. “Because we didn’t play well, and we let some of their players, role players get off or make shots, or get opportunities to score, which we can control. So our confidence is sky-rocketing.”

With one victory each, each team has seen their path to a series win. Here’s three of the key factors that will decide who sees their vision fulfilled:

1. TURNOVER TIDE: As different as the Lakers and Clippers are, there’s one way their teams are eerily similar: points off turnovers. In the regular season, the Lakers were third (19.0 ppg) and the Rockets were fourth (18.9). In the playoffs, the Lakers have been No. 1 (20.7 ppg) and the Rockets have been No. 2 (20.6 ppg). In a Game 1 win, the Rockets had 27 points off turnovers. In a Game 2 win, the Lakers had 27 points off turnovers.

Weird.

Anyway, those statistics indicate how low the margin for error is in this series. Any stray pass doesn’t just become another possession, it becomes points. Both teams are exceptional at running out quickly and reading transition mismatches.

It’s interesting that LeBron James still had trouble with ball security in Game 2, giving up seven turnovers. Hassling him is still going to be a main tenet of the Rockets’ game plan. The Lakers will have to depend on the Playoff Rondo they saw in Game 2 to make good, quick decisions as opposed to some of the rash ones he made in Game 1. A 9-to-1 assist to turnover ratio is a major, major improvement from 4-to-4.

“I mean, that’s what ‘Do is: He’s a leader,” James said. “And for us to have him back in the postseason, it’s a key for our team. He comes in, he pushes the tempo, he gets guys involved and that doesn’t always show up in the stat sheet.”

2. RUSSELL WESTBROOK, FOR BETTER OR WORSE: With two-and-a-half minutes remaining, Harden had the ball at the top of the arc guarded by Davis. As the clock waned, Rondo left Westbrook on the wing to double Harden. Harden passed to Westbrook, who had to shoot a three with no time left in the possession. Clank.

It’s not lost on the Lakers that Westbrook is a 25 percent 3-point shooter this year. While the 2017 MVP can put up points and assists in a hurry, just about everything rests on his ability to drive. Westbrook was 4 for 15 in Game 2, and just one of his makes was a 3-pointer. He bricked his last four shots.

Even in his “good” game in Game 1, Westbrook was just 10 for 24. His jump shot was a little better from the left wing: He hit four of his field goals from outside of the paint.

Westbrook is a scorer, but not nearly as efficient as Harden. The Lakers will emphasize defending Harden over defending Westbrook, who never advanced past the first round in Oklahoma City after Kevin Durant left the team in 2016. He is explosive at his best, corrosive at his worst. Westbrook is easier to scheme around than Harden — defenses mostly try to take the ball out of his hands and he still scores.

Westbrook played the fewest minutes of any of Houston’s starters on Sunday night, perhaps a reflection of his still recovering quad, or perhaps a reflection of the Lakers outscoring the Rockets by 14 points when he was on the floor.

But he’s going to play big minutes as one of the stars on the team, in the hopes that he can transfer his energy into an incredible performance. He’s scored 35 and 42 points against the Lakers this year, and neither Danny Green nor Kentavious Caldwell-Pope or Alex Caruso could physically stay in front of him in those games. But that Russ has yet to truly show up to this series.

Both Harden and Mike D’Antoni said that they felt the zone defense the Lakers played was gimmicky and that they knew how to beat it. But shooting is key to beating a zone, and if Westbrook is the one taking a lot of those shots, it’ll be tough to beat.

3. FINDING BREATHING LANES: The Lakers took 38 threes in Game 1. In Game 2, their shot composition changed a lot even though they took 83 shots, the exact same number as Game 1: They took just 27 threes, half as many as the Rockets attempted.

That led to dramatic statistics: They shot 62.5 percent inside the arc, an improvement from 53.3 percent the game before, and they outscored the Rockets 54-26 (Houston had won that category the game before, 42-40). Even though the Lakers were “small,” they dominated the inside much more than their opponents, because in part LeBron James and Anthony Davis are physical mismatches even for the Rockets’ forwards.

The key for the Lakers is to find motion to the basket. James is shooting 75.4 percent at the rim, which is the best in the playoffs. When Davis gets looks at the rim, there’s no Houston player who can get high enough to challenge him. The Rockets defenders, led by P.J. Tucker, are hard enough to move that it’s difficult to penetrate the paint against them, but not impossible.

Frank Vogel said between Games 1 and 2, the coaches tried to give Davis in particular a better feel for how to attack the Rockets’ switches, and how to cut to get entry passes.

“I think they work together: Us describing how he’s going to get the ball, when he’s going to get the ball, what type of attack to have against certain defenders,” he said. “I think that paints the picture in his mind of what he’s going to encounter and then he feels it out in the game.

It’s something Davis and James will have to keep doing to make sure they don’t fall prey to a 3-point shooting contest, which is the very thing the Rockets are comfortable winning.

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