NBA Betting Preview: Los Angeles Lakers vs. Houston Rockets Game 4
After an upset loss to Houston in Game 1, the Lakers have appeared to steady the ship over the last two games, fending off an at-times spirited Rockets team to claim victories in the last two games. Now, a critical Game 4 is set for Thursday night, as the Lakers look to take control of this second round series. Let’s take a look at the series so far, and what bettors should look for in this big playoff matchup.
After a 112-97 Game 1 upset victory in which Houston was a 7.5-point underdog, the market adjusted for the following two games, with the Rockets getting only 5.5 points. That number remains for Game 4, despite back-to-back SU and ATS victories for the Lakers. This line still seems about right, as the Lakers won Games 2 and 3 by eight and ten points, respectively, but needed very good clutch time play to cover in both games. The Rockets have led at points in all three games, and were ahead for much of Game 3. Given that this is such a huge moment in this series for Houston, it’s reasonable to expect something to the team’s best effort in this spot.
That said, one of the built-in advantages the Rockets have given their unorthodox small-ball style of play is unfamiliarity. It was clearly a factor in Game 1, as a rusty Lakers team couldn’t adapt in time. LeBron James admitted that it was too difficult to adjust to the speed and activity of the Rockets right out of the gates, saying that it was not possible to simulate the way Houston play. He also said, following the loss, that the Lakers would be much better off in the following games, and he was right. The same sort of pattern was seen in Houston’s first round matchup against Oklahoma City. The Rockets won the first two games very comfortably, before losing three of the next four. The Rockets needed a huge effort to pull out a 104-102 victory in Game 7. Houston covered the first two games with ease, but closed the first round on a 1-4 ATS run. We could see a similar pattern unfolding more quickly against a Lakers team that is substantially better than the Thunder.
It’s not just the overall series pattern, but it seems as though teams become more comfortable against Houston as the game goes on. Over the last eight playoff games, Houston has led in each game, but also been outscored in six of eight fourth quarters. This is likely a result of a combination of factors, none of which trend well for Houston. There’s the physical aspect, as Houston can get worn down by bigger teams like the Thunder and Lakers, and there’s the reliance on three-point shooting that the Rockets have, which can be harder as their thin rotation gets tired as the game goes on.
The Rockets have been able to dictate matchups through much of this series. Dwight Howard has not played in the last two games, and JaVale McGee has played a total 14 minutes over those two wins. Bully ball is not possible against a Rockets team that is so set in its small-ball identity, but the size disparity is still evident and seemingly growing for the Lakers as the series moves forward. After hanging in on the glass in the first two games, the Rockets were out-rebounded by 19 in Game 3. In addition, Anthony Davis and LeBron James, both of whom have serious size advantages in this matchup, have become more and more dominant. The two superstars combined for 64 points, 22 rebounds, and 11 assists in Game 3, to go along with 21 free throw attempts. They also shot a combined 22-for-36 from the field. There’s just not a player on the Rockets roster than can really hope to contain either of these two players over a long series.
Meanwhile, as the Rockets thin rotation reels from the wear and tear of two difficult playoff series, Robert Covington is probable for this game after a bad-looking facial injury in Game 3. If Covington is at less than full tilt, the going gets very tough for the Rockets. He’s one of the Houston’s most consistent rebounders, and at 6’ 7”, is the tallest member of the starting unit. Head Coach Mike D’Antoni insisted he would be extending the rotation against the Lakers before the series began, but he’s yet to do that. Danuel House Jr. missed Game 3 for personal reasons and is questionable here.
The Lakers, on the other hand, have been buoyed by the return of Playoff Rondo, who has had phenomenal games back-to-back after an extended layoff. Surprisingly, he’s exceeded his minutes restriction in both games, logging 35 minutes in Game 2 and 30 minutes in Game 3. The former NBA champion was critical down the stretch in Game 3, making a series of great decisions on the offensive end. With the game tied after three quarters, Rondo scored or assisted on Los Angeles’ first 19 points of the final frame, culminating in a layup that put his team up 12 with less than six minutes to go. As opposed to being rusty, Rondo looks to have benefited greatly from the time off. He looks to have more bounce and energy than he has all season, and if he continues at this level of play alongside his two superstar teammates, it’s hard to see a way back into this series for the Rockets.
All that said, there’s no doubting that the Lakers have been taken out of their comfort zone for a lot of stretches throughout the first three games of this playoff battle. James Harden has been able to remain effective on offense whether as a scorer, or in more of a facilitating role when he’s seeing a healthy dose of double-teams. Russell Westbrook had a solid offensive night in Game 3, after a brutal start to the series, scoring 30 points on 13-for-24 from the floor, and importantly, only attempting four three point shots. This is a vital bounce back spot for Houston’s superstar duo, and given how tight the last two games have been until late, there’s some logic to zagging when the public will likely stick with the resurgent Lakers. This game will likely come down to clutch time again, and the Rockets simply need this game more. Grabbing the points may require a bit of nose-holding, but it’s probably the slightly better play in this spot.