The Lakers are heavily favored to advance to the conference finals, but the Rockets won't be an easy out. In fact, Houston has a real chance in this series given the relative strengths and weaknesses of the teams. What follows are three things the Rockets have to do in order to upset the Lakers.
Houston Has to Make Shots
This seems obvious, right? But while the Rockets have a reputation as an outside shooting team, they actually ranked 24th in the NBA in 3-point percentage during the regular season at 34.5 percent. What canceled that out a bit was the fact that they led the league with 15.6 makes per game on 45.3 attempts. Houston ranked ninth in effective field goal percentage (53.5 percent) as a result. During the postseason, the Rockets have ticked that up a bit, making 18.3 3-pointers per game (on 51.0 attempts).
The Rockets have a clear advantage from beyond the arc in this series. The Lakers ranked 21st in 3-point percentage during the regular season (34.9 percent) and shot just 34.3 percent during their first-round series against Portland. As a team that typically plays big, the Lakers rely on paint scoring far more than deep shooting. That leaves the Rockets with an opening.
Nearly half of Houston's scoring comes from beyond the 3-point line. If the Rockets are making shots from the perimeter, they'll score a ton of points and that could negate the Lakers' massive size advantage. Shooting is likely the key to the entire series.
James Harden Needs to Have the Series of His Life
I know James Harden just had one of the best offensive seasons in NBA history, but now he has to turn things up a notch. With Avery Bradley opting out of the bubble, the Lakers don't truly have an elite perimeter defender to throw at Harden. Instead they've got a collection of guys who will simply try to challenge and contain him. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Danny Green will likely get the first crack at doing so.
Harden averaged 29.6 points, 8.0 assists and 6.3 rebounds per game during the Rockets' seven-game series against the Thunder. He's got to go even crazier against the Lakers.
Los Angeles is going to get a ton of scoring from LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Those two are also going to fill up the stat sheet across the board. Harden and Russell Westbrook need to match them for star power or the Rockets will be sent packing early.
Robert Covington Needs to Come up Big
Robert Covington is in an unenviable position. He'll likely spend a decent amount of time defending LeBron James, who was on an absolute roll over the last four against the Blazers. Covington was great against the Thunder, averaging 13.3 points and 5.7 rebounds while shooting 50.0 percent from 3-point range. While those numbers will be important against the Lakers, his defense will be even more pressing.
Against Portland, James averaged 27.4 points, 10.2 rebounds and 10.2 assists, while his PER was an absurd 32.68. If that happens against Houston, the Rockets are toast. Covington will need to step up, as will P.J. Tucker, who will see time defending both James and Davis. The key for both men will be turning James and Davis into jump shooters. If either guy gets going to the rim the best an opponent can do is pray.
To be fair, the Rockets switch everything defensively, so stopping James will be a team effort. Covington, Tucker, Eric Gordon and plenty of others will wind up staring down LeBron. But Covington has the size and defensive ability to make life difficult for the four-time MVP. When he gets his chances he needs to make them count.