There are some quotes that follow a coach his whole career, or at least long enough to become profoundly ironic.
When Mike D’Antoni took over as coach of the Los Angeles Lakers in 2012 and was asked how he planned to use likely future Hall of Fame big men Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard, he shrugged and called a straight post-up possession “one of the least efficient plays in basketball.” At the time, that stance was heretical for a franchise that had been led by some of the best bigs in NBA history: Shaquille O’Neal, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain and George Mikan, just to name a few.
D’Antoni and his small-ball approach didn’t last long in Los Angeles, with the coach resigning in frustration after just 18 months.
But D’Antoni’s vision has aged well. So well, in fact, that the Lakers have now fully embraced a small-ball lineup in their second-round playoff series against D’Antoni’s Houston Rockets, and in a cruel bit of irony, beaten D’Antoni at his own game.
It started in Game 3, when Lakers coach Frank Vogel sent 6-foot-8 forward Markieff Morris out to start the second half, effectively using him and 6-foot-10 forward Anthony Davis as centers against a Rockets team that doesn’t even bother with a traditional center anymore.
In the Lakers’ 110-100 win over Houston in Game 4 on Thursday night, which gave them a commanding 3-1 series lead, the Lakers went even further toward pure small ball:
Centers JaVale McGee and Howard didn’t even play.
Morris started in place of McGee and scored nine points in 23 minutes.
Davis embraced his height advantage over everyone on the court, finishing with a monstrous 29 points and 15 rebounds in 40 minutes. It was his seventh 25-point, 10-rebound game in this postseason, the most by a Laker since O’Neal had eight in 2004.
The Lakers even gave meaningful minutes in the first half to rookie Talen Horton-Tucker, a 6-foot-4 swingman with a 7-foot-1 wingspan, as they shifted focus toward defending Houston’s 3-point shooting and winning a rebounding battle they’d squandered against the Rockets earlier in the series.
Horton-Tucker, a second-round draft pick from Iowa State who spent most of this season in the G League, had played in only six Lakers games all season. But sources within the organization told ESPN that he’d impressed his teammates and the coaching staff when the Lakers reconvened for training camp after the four-month hiatus, especially in the four seeding games in which he played.
On Thursday, Horton-Tucker was a key part of a stretch in which the Lakers broke the game open in the second quarter. The rookie had five points and two steals in his eight minutes, as the Lakers extended their lead from four points to 13. Overall, the Lakers went on a 27-12 second quarter run that left the Rockets in a double-digit deficit for most of the rest of the game.
“We’re trying to play a little bit the way Houston does,” Vogel said afterward.
But the Lakers’ version of small ball has proved to be more effective than Houston’s, because while they’re playing a smaller lineup, they’re not exactly small.
“I don’t look at it as small,” LeBron James said. “You’ve got [Davis] at 6-11, [Morris] at 6-10, I’m 6-9, Danny [Green] is 6-7, [Kentavious Caldwell-Pope] is 6-6 and a half, 6-7. And we all have this wingspan, and we play hard. When you have that type of length and athleticism throughout five guys, it definitely helps. Clean glass, defend, be able to rotate, be in communication where if something breaks down you have guys that can fly around to help. It’s a good lineup for us.”
It has been so good, James was able to rest a bit more than usual in Game 4, playing only 34 minutes but nearly finishing with another triple-double (16 points, 15 rebounds, 9 assists).
Earlier in the series, it seemed the 35-year-old James would have to carry the Lakers past the Rockets, as Houston exploited its advantages in style and offensive substance. But the Lakers have not only adjusted to the ways in which D’Antoni’s Rockets make opponents uncomfortable, they’ve completely flipped the script.
The Lakers outscored Houston 19-2 in fast-break points in Game 4. For the series, Los Angeles is dominating in transition, 91-50.
Inside, the discrepancy is even more stark. The Lakers outscored the Rockets in the paint 62-24 in Game 4, and are shooting an absurd 69.7% in the paint for the series. That’s on pace to be the highest by any team in a series since 1997, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
Los Angeles has also made life uncomfortable for Rockets superstar James Harden, who made just 2-of-11 from the field Thursday and could mostly score only by getting to the free throw line, where he was 16-of-20.
“[Harden] is probably one of the best offensive players we’ve ever seen in this league,” James said. “So we’re just trying to limit anything we can from him. He gets to the paint with his runners, with his floaters, obviously he has the step-back, he has the 3s in transition, he has his catch-and-shoot 3s when he’s off the ball, and like I said, he’s very tricky with his moves to get to the free throw line. We’re just trying to take away some things. We can’t take away everything because that’s how great he is offensively.”
Harden had few answers for why the Rockets seemed so flat Thursday, with so much on the line.
“Good question,” he said.
The Lakers contested 10 of Harden’s 11 field goal attempts Thursday, throwing seven different defenders at him. The 11 attempts were the fewest for Harden in a playoff game since Game 6 of the 2017 semifinals against the San Antonio Spurs, a loss that ended Houston’s season.
D’Antoni said he doesn’t necessarily look at the Lakers limiting Harden’s field goal attempts as a negative, so long as someone is scoring on those plays. And indeed, the Rockets hit 10-of-16 shots off his passes.
But the Rockets aren’t going to win many games when their leading scorer is 1-for-10 on shots he creates for himself.
“Just seems like we got down, we lost our way a little bit,” D’Antoni said. “It’s not like you do it on purpose. We’ve been battling uphill the last three or four days and we let go of the rope a little bit. It’s normal. But I don’t have a doubt these guys are going to be ready to come back and play hard like they did in the fourth quarter.”
Game 5 is Saturday. The Rockets’ season is now on the brink. So too are the legacies of D’Antoni and Harden.
“We’ll come back and lay it down on the line,” D’Antoni said. “And we’ll go from there.”