LeBron James popped the top back onto a plastic container full of grapes and crossed his arms to express dissatisfaction with the team’s finish.
You would’ve thought the Los Angeles Lakers lost.
“We’ve got to close out games the right way,” said James, who scored 16 points to go with 15 rebounds and 9 assists. “When we get a big lead, we’ve got to be able to continue to defend and continue to put the pressure on their defense, and not allow them to get back into the game like we did.”
In their most dominating outing of the Western Conference semifinals, the Lakers captured their third-straight win 110-100 on Wednesday to take a 3-1 lead over the Houston Rockets. Los Angeles took command from the outset, leading by as many as 23 points in the first game of the series that featured absolutely no lead changes.
The Lakers led by 16 with 4:24 remaining, and watched their advantage disintegrate to just five points with 58.7 ticks left on the strength of a 12-2 Rockets run.
Interestingly, the teams interpreted that fourth-quarter spurt differently. The Rockets took an optimistic viewpoint, hoping that momentum carries over into Saturday’s Game 5. Los Angeles, meanwhile, saw Houston’s fourth-quarter run as unacceptable for a team with championship aspirations in a high-stakes fight against a high-octane offense.
“It’s a 48-minute game,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “We know if we got a big lead and they got down at crunch time, they’re gonna get desperate. We didn’t take care of the ball well enough and execute, offensively, well enough. But it’s something we can work on and improve. It’s a heck of a win for our group, and we’re not gonna be comfortable playing against this team with the firepower that they have. We’re up 3-1, but we’ve got to stay the course and stay the more desperate team.”
Los Angeles owns a record of 35-1 all-time when leading a series 3-1. The last time the Lakers built such an advantage and lost was in 2006 against the Phoenix Suns, coincidentally, led then by Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni.
“I think we know the formula,” D’Antoni said. “We know we’re in a big hole now. But the next game is the game we’ve got to win. We’ll go all out, and if we lay it on the line like we did in the fourth quarter, we’ll be fine.”
Here are three observations from Game 4:
1. Lakers’ almost small-ball lineup
Los Angeles combated Houston’s highly-publicized small-ball lineup with a smaller starting lineup of its own featuring Anthony Davis starting just his third game this season at the center spot and Markieff Morris at power forward alongside James, Danny Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
“I don’t look at it as a small lineup,” James said. “We’ve still got A.D. at 6-11, we’ve still got [Markieff] at 6-10. I’m 6-9, Danny [Green] is 6-7 and K.C.P. is 6-6 ½, 6-7 (he’s actually 6-5).”
Indeed. That group spent a total of 9 minutes on the floor together, producing an offensive rating of 100.0 and a defensive rating of 70.6 while finishing with a true shooting percentage of 50.4 and a rebounding percentage of 60.0.
Houston hit just 1 of 5 from deep in the opening quarter, as the Lakers finished the first quarter ahead 26-22.
“We’re just able to rotate faster, [and] we can switch a lot,” said Davis, who finished with a game-high 29 points to go with 12 rebounds, five assists and a pair of blocks. “When we match up with those guys, we’re able to switch out, keep the ball in front of us. When they do drive and get by one of us, and start kicking it out for 3s, our guys are able to rotate and cover up for our mistakes. We still have enough size where we can rebound the basketball and kind of punish them on the other end as well.”
2. You’ve probably heard very little about Talen Horton-Tucker
But the rookie from Iowa State put on a quick first-half show in his brief postseason debut.
Horton-Tucker entered the game for Kuzma with 9:46 left in the second quarter, and quickly poured in his five points on back-to-back buckets in a span of 44 seconds. His finger roll off a Rondo assist with 4:59 left in the first half gave the Lakers a 10-point lead. More importantly, Horton-Tucker’s play showed he wasn’t afraid of the moment and that the team can trust him moving forward in the playoffs.
“We got the rook in the game today, and he was huge in his first stint in the postseason,” James said.
Added Davis: “We’re all so happy for him. In a big game, he comes in and played extremely well on both ends of the floor.”
It wasn’t a surprise to anyone on the Lakers. With Morris joining the starting lineup, Vogel saw an opportunity to give the extra minutes to Horton-Tucker. A second-round pick from Iowa State, Horton-Tucker had played in just six games during the regular season.
“Her performed exceptionally well, and none of us were surprised,” Vogel said. “We’ve watched him play on the off days in the pick-up games. We’ve seen him a lot in the bubble here. We didn’t see him a lot [before the season was suspended due to coronavirus] aside from obviously the G League games during the season. But he’s a talented kid. He’s unafraid. He plays beyond his years. When we decided to go smaller, starting Markieff, we knew we had some minutes there to get another wing in there. I just wanted to give Talen a chance because he continued to prove himself in practice. I like what he brings to the table.”
3. The Lakers obliterated Houston in the hustle stats
That was pretty much the story of the game as Los Angeles owned a 17-3 advantage over the Rockets in second-chance points, outscored them on the break 19-2 and dominated paint scoring 62-24.
The Lakers also outrebounded Houston 52-26, in addition to holding them to zero fast break points and zero second-chance points through the first three quarters, marking the first time since 1997 that’s happened in any playoff game, per ESPN Stats & Info.
Los Angeles still walked away thinking it could’ve performed better. Rockets star James Harden connected on just 2 field goal attempts, but still managed to score 21 points by hitting 16 of 20 from the free-throw line. One of Los Angeles’ top priorities against Harden is preventing him from getting to the charity stripe.
“We’re just trying to limit anything that we can from him because he can score,” James said. “He gets into 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.”
Harden drained only one of his six attempts from deep. Interestingly, the Rockets averaged 51.6 3-point attempts per game over their first 17 outings in the bubble. Over the last two games, Houston’s 3-point attempts have fallen to an average of 31.5.
“A lot of it is what they’re doing,” D’Antoni said. “They’re really spreading out, but that means we should get to the [free-throw] line and get some layups. We did when we were doing it the right way. In the second half, we get 59 points, and a lot of that was just putting our heads down and going. There’s no reason why we can’t repeat that.”
The small-ball Rockets have now been outrebounded in 34 of their last 37 games.
The Game 4 loss also marked D’Antoni’s first when his teams trailed 2-1.
So, with the stakes so high for Game 4, Harden was asked why the Rockets came out so flat.
“That’s a good question,” he said. “There’s nothing we can do about it now. We just have to get ready for Game 5.”
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