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Playoffs 2020

Who is a bigger threat to the Los Angeles Lakers: Houston Rockets or Oklahoma City Thunder?

Scott Rafferty (@crabdribbles): Over the weekend, the Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Portland Trail Blazers to punch their ticket to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since ... 2012.

We still don't know who the Lakers will be playing in the second round, but we do know it'll either be the Houston Rockets or Oklahoma City Thunder.

It should be a competitive series regardless of which team advances - the Rockets and Thunder feel better than the fourth and fifth seed, respectively - but which one do you think would give the Lakers more trouble?

Kyle Irving (@KyleIrv_): First of all ... 2012?! I feel like it's severely underrated how long the Lakers weren't good. Nearly a decade without a second-round playoff appearance. That's crazy.

As for your question, with Russell Westbrook returning to Houston's lineup in Game 5, I feel like the answer is clearly the Rockets. We saw the potential difficulties Los Angeles could have defending elite backcourts in the first round, and that Conference Semifinals matchup against Westbrook and James Harden is even more challenging than Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum.

Would you say the same?

Rafferty: The thing that's interesting to me about these two teams is that they pose a similar threat to the Lakers in very different ways.

As you said, perhaps the biggest question the Lakers faced coming into these playoffs had to do with how they would match up with some of the league's best guards because they were without arguably their best guard defender in Avery Bradley. (And even if you don't think Bradley is their best guard defender, he leaves the Lakers with one less player who can guard guards, which matters).

What makes the Thunder a difficult team to match up with is that they rely heavily on their three guards in Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schroder, each of whom I think could give the Lakers trouble because of how quick, shifty and crafty they are. As for the Rockets, them playing small will force the Lakers to make a tough decision. Do they stick with the bigger lineups that they've relied on all season long or do they downsize themselves, perhaps by playing more of Anthony Davis at centre?

Like you, I think the Rockets could give the Lakers a little more trouble because they can put more pressure on their bigs, but I do think it's close. This Thunder team is no joke.

Irving: I think what makes the Thunder so difficult is that they thrive on being counted out. Being the underdog. They've made that mindset work for them all season, and nothing fuels that fire like knocking off a team in the Rockets who almost everyone had defeating you in the first round, especially given the recent history between those two franchises.

But where there are defensive matchup issues for the Lakers in that OKC three-guard lineup, that has to be magnified 10-times over for the Thunder when they're on defence, right?

I think that's where the Rockets gain the advantage in giving Los Angeles a harder time. When Houston's on offence, they cause matchup problems for the Lakers on D, but when they're on defence, they can still somewhat match up with L.A., even when they go small.

Rafferty: That's a great point. The Rockets obviously don't have anyone who can match up with Davis size-wise, but they'll be more than happy if the Lakers rely on Davis post-ups as their primary source of offence.

That's what makes them such a pain to play against.

The mismatches the Rockets present by going small couldn't be clearer - mouse in the house! - but it's so clear that teams feel like they have to go to it again and again and again. There are times when someone like Davis is going to score an easy basket against them in the post, but the Rockets are playing the numbers game, and the numbers point to post-ups being one of the least efficient sources of offence in the game today.

For what it's worth, Davis ranked in the 45th percentile this season with 0.90 points per post-up possession. That's not a number that will scare the Rockets.

I do feel like the Lakers would have to go to Davis more at centre if they play the Rockets. Otherwise, there's just not going to be enough space for them to work with on offence. At least against the Thunder, they could play more of their traditional lineups.

Irving: Right. With a player like Steven Adams playing as much as he does for OKC, the Lakers will gladly combat that with any combination of Davis, JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard.

Against the Rockets, the latter two seem to fall into the background. Like you said, the Lakers will probably slide Davis to centre, and they're much less likely to play McGee and Howard at their usual rate - players that typically provide an impact for this team.

Having to completely change your gameplan to adjust to what your opponent is doing should give a good indication on who the tougher matchup is.

Rafferty: Davis playing more centre against the Rockets would probably mean that he's guarding Westbrook, by the way, which would make for a fascinating matchup.

The matchup data is far from perfect, but NBA.com credits Westbrook with scoring 14 points on 7-for-9 shooting in the five minutes Davis was matched up with him this season. Westbrook might be giving up several inches in that matchup, but the spacing the Rockets can provide by surrounding him with four shooters makes him an absolute nightmare even for a Defensive Player of the Year finalist.

We should probably mention that Westbrook did miss the first four games of Houston's series with Oklahoma City because of a strained quadriceps. It probably goes without saying, but Houston's only hope of beating Los Angeles should they meet is for Westbrook to be at 100 percent.

Irving: Absolutely. We've seen how much trouble the Thunder gave the Rockets without Westbrook available. The Lakers would exploit that weakness even more. But if Houston does advance and Russ is back to 100 percent ... we could be looking at one of the most intense series of the playoffs.

All those "who is the best duo in the NBA?" questions from way back in the offseason would be coming to fruition right in front of our eyes.

Rafferty: I guess this is how I see it: Oklahoma City could make it a competitive series, whereas Houston could muck things up enough to actually beat Los Angeles.

You think that's fair?

Oh, and as much as we've talked about Davis, LeBron James would be a much tougher matchup for the Thunder than the Rockets. I love Luguentz Dort, but asking a rookie to defend James is ... a lot.

Irving: I have to be completely transparent: when the conversation started on Dort guarding Harden in the first round, I laughed. While LeBron is a much bigger mismatch, I've learned my lesson on counting out the Montreal native because he proved me wrong in that series, regardless of the outcome.

But I couldn't agree more.

OKC could very well tough out two wins against the Lakers and force that series to six games. It would be scrappy and fun to watch. For the Rockets, I actually think they have a chance to beat Los Angeles and advance to the Conference Finals.

Rafferty: I guess we'll soon find out.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA or its clubs.

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