As the only remaining occupants at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, the Houston Rockets could find plenty of private space to talk shop Sunday night after falling 117-109 in Game 2 to the Los Angeles Lakers.
So, naturally, Russell Westbrook paid a visit to James Harden’s suite.
“We were just talking about basketball and ways we can be better,” Harden said. “We hold each other accountable. That’s the kind of weight that we have on our shoulders. So, communication, talking and figuring things out, ways I can help him, ways he can help me and then ways we can help our team as a collective.”
The Rockets certainly didn’t do that in helping the Los Angeles Lakers even the series at 1-1 with 17 turnovers turned into 27 points in a game decided by single digits. Houston even overcame a 21-point deficit to lead by four with just three seconds left in the third quarter.
So, maybe that’s why Houston enters Tuesday’s Game 3 with confidence that Harden described as “skyrocketing.”
“I think each individual player on our team is in a good space, and that’s what we’re gonna need,” Harden said. “We’re excited. We’re more confident. I think last night, even though we lost, we’re even more confident that we have a chance because we didn’t play well, and we let some of their players and role players get off, or make shots, or get opportunities to score, which we can control.”
Harden believes that all starts with he and Westbrook.
The star guard duo combined to commit 12 of the team’s 17 giveaways, with the Lakers producing 20 of their 27 points off turnovers in transition. Westbrook scored just two points, shooting 1-for-8 from the field while committing four first-half turnovers that helped the Lakers build their 21-point lead. Still, the Rockets made the game competitive despite all the mistakes and their point guard serving more turnovers than assists while contributing just 10 points on 4-of-15 shooting.
Westbrook owned up to his part in Sunday’s loss, saying he’ll be “ready to go” for Game 3. Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni simply wants Westbrook to “just be himself.”
That version of Westbrook attacked the paint in the regular season when teams deployed zones, traps and double teams in an attempt to neutralize Harden. It’s not an accident that Westbrook averaged nearly a triple double (27.2 points, 7.9 rebounds and 7.0 assists) before Houston entered the Walt Disney World campus.
D’Antoni called zone defenses “a desperation thing,” adding that “I’m not a big believer in it. I think offensively, we should kill it. We didn’t last night. But we’ll do a better job against it next time.”
They should, given the frequency at which teams have deployed exotic tactics this season to slow Harden. The Rockets have seen just about every look an opponent can throw their way. So they know how to attack them, a point D’Antoni made sure to mention Monday on a Zoom chat before the team’s workout.
“If you look at the game, we did it then,” D’Antoni said. “We were down , then we we’re up five in a blink while we’re doing it right. Then, we just made some decisions that weren’t great. It happens. Nobody tries to do that. But we know how to attack it. Will we be more prepared? We hope. We showed them [during a film session] examples of when we did it right, it was great. When we did it wrong, it was bad.
“It’s just a matter of trying to make those decisions on the run. Our spacing could be better. I don’t know if there’s 20 times that they trapped, 10 times we did it really well, and then 10 times we didn’t. It was mostly the same mistakes. So, hopefully we’ve addressed that, and we’ll be able to do a better job with it.”
Despite the Game 2 win, the Lakers see areas in need of improvement, too.
With Los Angeles devoting so much into shutting down Harden and Westbrook, Rockets guard Eric Gordon has slithered through the cracks in two straight games. Gordon scored 23 points in Game 1 before reeling off 24 in Game 2, and he’s shooting 45% from deep in this series. What’s more, many of his shots from 3-point range in the series have been wide open, and he’s knocking down 56.3% of those attempts.
P.J. Tucker (4-for-7 on 3-pointers in Game 2), Robert Covington (4-for-8) and Danuel House Jr. (3-for-7) have also had their moments.
“I’m gonna rely on my Hall of Fame point guard and my Hall of Fame combo guard to set me up in position to break that,” House said. “I just want to do the easy part for the team: shoot, make the right reads, and just play the right way.”
With Houston’s shooters spread out so far on the floor, the Lakers understand they’ve got to cover plenty of ground to account for Houston’s supporting cast when they attempt to load up on Harden.
Lakers coach Frank Vogel said his team typically goes into a game with a plan for their various defensive coverages and an idea of the best points to utilize them.
“Your margin for error is small,” Vogel said. “If you make mistakes against this [offense] you could be giving up a 3. You saw in the third quarter [of Game 2] they can hit them in bunches. You make up for it with communication, energy and using your hands. Getting your hands in the passing lanes shrinks the floor.
“There definitely is a smaller margin of error when you have the space around elite playmakers like they have. I really loved the energy of our defense [in Game 2]. Our guys really bought into what our plan was, and the many ways we kind of mixed our pitches with their great players. Giving them different looks is an important part of how we play these games.”
The Rockets certainly expect them. Harden replied “of course,” when asked whether the Rockets sense desperation when an opponent resorts to utilizing zones, traps and double teams to stop him.
“We’re so good, man, that teams have got to throw in traps or throw in zones or whatnot,” he said. “The zone or trap, it kind of gets us more excited because we’re gonna have more shot opportunities. Guys that are around me and Russ are gonna have more shot opportunities, more opportunities to keep going offensively. That’s what we want because, offensively, me and Russ are able to get any shot we want to at any time.
“We’ve just got to do a better job, especially me and Russell and the ballhandlers of getting those shots, getting those possessions where we don’t give the Lakers opportunities to get out in transition because that’s what they’re really good at. So, we watched film on the traps, the zones and things like that, ways that we can attack it. Tomorrow, we’ll be better prepared.”
As will the Lakers, according to Kyle Kuzma, who leads a bench unit that has outscored Houston’s reserves 74-30 so far this series.
The Rockets are now 3-1 against the Lakers this season since going all-in on small ball.
“Some guys, we need to double at some point,” Kuzma explained. “You just have to have that awareness on the floor of where the shooters are, and how to close out soon whether you need to force them left, you need to force them right, you need a hot close, short close. It’s all about just knowing your personnel, and then having that awareness on the court.”
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