Lakers’ Size Presents Matchup Issue for Mike D’Antoni, Rockets

Michael Shapiro

Mike D'Antoni isn't afraid to go small. The Rockets head coach has made a habit on leaning on 6'5" forward P.J. Tucker at center for significant stretches over the last few seasons, including Wednesday's loss against Portland. Tucker logged nearly half of his 30 minutes on Wednesday at the five. He's unlikely to turn in a repeat performance on Saturday against the Lakers. 

"[The Lakers] are long, that's what they do," D'Antoni said at the Toyota Center on Friday. "We may not be able to downsize."

Los Angeles enters the Toyota Center on Saturday as the Western Conference's No. 1 seed, sitting at 33–8 in the second year of the LeBron James era. And the Lakers have turned back the clock en route to the West's best record. Head coach Frank Vogel has leaned heavily on Los Angeles' frontcourt this season, giving 17 minutes per game to JaVale McGee and 19.8 per game to Dwight Howard. Add in All-NBA talent Anthony Davis, and the Lakers are able to trot out a dynamic twin towers look. 

Vogel hasn't shied away from playing a pair of bigs together this season, effectively engineering a reverse D'Antoni. Vogel's decision has paid dividends. Davis and McGee have a plus-7.8 net rating in 454 minutes together. Davis and Howard are plus-6.7 in 277 minutes. Davis' skill-set has been paramount in making the lineups work, controlling the floor from the low block to the three-point line. His versatility is immeasurable. In an era of downsizing and spacing, the Lakers have become an impressive anomaly.

How will D'Antoni counter the Lakers' massive lineups? Don't expect any first-time wrinkles. The Rockets are unlikely to play Isaiah Hartenstein or Tyson Chandler next to starting center Clint Capela on Saturday. Houston's precious offensive spacing would be cramped, and Capela has not logged a single minute alongside a backup center this season. Instead of trotting out a pair of traditional bigs, D'Antoni could get creative in his deployment of the Rockets' starters. James Harden could spend time guarding McGee or Howard, and the 2017-18 MVP may switch onto Anthony Davis in short spurts, per D'Antoni. 

"We can put [Capela] on Davis and [Harden] on the other big, or vice versa," D'Antoni said on Friday. 

Saturday night's matchup will provide a test for the Rockets' front line, especially behind Capela. Chandler has been demoted to a tertiary role in Houston's rotation, failing to see the floor in six of the last eight games. 21-year-old Isaiah Hartenstein has snagged the backup center role from Chandler, though his minutes have also been sporadic of late. Hartenstein played just four minutes in a loss to the Grizzlies on Wednesday, and he was yanked from the game after playing just 56 seconds against the Trail Blazers. D'Antoni remains partial to the small-ball lineups. 

D'Antoni's preference will likely have to take a back seat on Saturday. The Lakers rank No. 2 in the league in paint points per game. Only two Western Conference teams crash the offensive glass at a better rate. D'Antoni has gone small in recent games, relegating his backup bigs to the end of the bench. His philosophy will have to change against the Lakers. Capela, Hartenstein and Chandler will earn their chance, with each player potentially logging significant minutes. Their performance on Saturday could swing the matchup of Finals contenders in the Western Conference.

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