Anthony Davis goes to the basket against Houston Rockets

Lakers at Rockets: Three Things to Know (1/12/21)

by Mike Trudell
Lakers Reporter

The Lakers (8-3) remain in Houston (3-5) for the second of a back-to-back set of games against their Western Conference Semifinal opponent from last season, with a 5 p.m. tip on Spectrum SportsNet.

Below are three things to know about the matchup:

Prior to Sunday’s game in Houston, the Lakers were averaging 14.6 fastbreak points per game, down from their season average of 17.6 last year. Before the game, I asked Frank Vogel about it, and one thing he cited was the four-game absence of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who’s critical to the break with his ability and desire to sprint from corner to corner on nearly every play. He also cited some other factors, like the small sample size and truncated training camp.

I’d also asked because the Lakers had destroyed Houston in total fastbreak points inn their second round playoff matchup, 84-31.

Then the game started, and the Lakers were sprinting all over the place.

They finished the game with a 32-7 edge in fastbreak points, which alone bumped them up from 11th to 6th in the NBA in that category, as they’re now up to 16.2 per game. Their break was ignited by a bevy of steals (13) and blocks (8), with Anthony Davis leading the defensive charge.

Attempting to slow L.A.’s transition push will certainly be a big focus for Houston, but that’s easier said than done against LeBron James and Co.

Meanwhile, Markieff Morris and DeMarcus Cousins will both be back on the floor after their respective ejections in the first matchup, providing a bit of extra spice to the contest.

During L.A.’s first 11 games, they’ve played without Davis (2 missed games), KCP (4), Alex Caruso (5) and Wesley Matthews (1), with Matthews expected to miss Tuesday’s game with right Achilles soreness. Nonetheless, L.A. has managed not to skip a beat as coach Frank Vogel called the next number down the bench.

The Lakers go 11 deep with starting caliber players, a true rarity in the NBA. Vogel typically likes to use a 10-man rotation, as he did last season, but the emergence of 20-year-old Talen Horton-Tucker, L.A.’s No. 46 overall draft pick from 2019 that would likely go in the lottery in a re-draft, has forced him to extend the rotation to 11.

THT was terrific against Houston on Sunday, hitting seven of eight shots for 17 points with three assists on offense, while also defending at a high level, ripping four steals and adding five boards. He was a +7 in his 20 minutes, making Vogel look good yet again.

Of course, L.A.’s depth still revolves around the fact that they have two stars to take the bulk of the opponent’s attention. LeBron, in his 18th season, is playing a career-low 32.5 minutes per game while scoring 24.0 points with 8.3 boards and 7.7 assists. Davis is averaging 22.9 points, 8.6 boards and 3.2 assists with 1.6 blocks and 1.3 steals, also in fewer-than-typical minutes, 33.0. Davis has already begun the ramp-up process, though, most notable in his blocks; after just two swats in his first six games, he’s blocked three shots in four straight.

And it was Davis who led the defensive charge against the Rockets in his first game since he was upset with L.A.’s defense in a home loss to San Antonio last week.

The clear standout of the first matchup between these two teams was indeed Davis, who opened the game by flying around on defense both on and off the ball, and not missing a shot on the other end (4 for 4 in the first quarter) to build L.A. a 10-point lead it would not relent. It was a harkening back to the identity they established in their 2019-20 championship campaign.

Vogel called Sunday’s game “An identity win,” as the Lakers got back to their staple style of play from the title season: destructive defense + flying up the court in transition after getting stops. Nobody’s been able to handle the Lakers when they play like that, and Davis is at the center of it.

“We gotta be able to be a team who leads defensively,” said Davis in his walkoff interview on Spectrum SportsNet. “What we can control is how we play defense, our energy and effort, and that’s what we wanted to do (on Sunday). I came out with an emphasis on being aggressive on the defensive end, and it kind of trickled down to everybody.”


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