The clash of styles loomed large to start the Western Conference semifinals Friday, leaving LeBron James tossing around sports other than basketball to describe what transpired in the aftermath of the Houston Rockets toppling the Los Angeles Lakers 112-97.
James called the Rockets a “100-meter dash team,” before turning to the NFL to bring home the point.
“It’s kind of like in the early 2000s [with] the St. Louis Rams, ‘The Greatest Show on Turf,’” James explained. “People always said how you’d scout them, scout them, and scout them until they got on the field and saw Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt, Marshall Faulk, Az[-Zahir] Hakim and all those guys. And they were like, ‘OK, we need to play them again because there’s no way you can simulate that speed.’”
Luckily for the Lakers, they’ve got at least three more cracks at it.
Playing at a blistering pace offensively while relying on its relentless, active defense — which ranks No. 1 in the playoffs — Houston seized Game 1 of this series with relative ease on the strength of a 36-point night from James Harden, who produced his sixth outing of the postseason with 30-plus points, and strong showings from Russell Westbrook (24 points, 9 rebounds, 6 assists) and Eric Gordon (23 points).
Defensively, the Rockets feasted on 17 turnovers they turned into 27 points as Lakers stars James (20 points) and Anthony Davis (25 points) combined for just 22 points in the second half.
Maybe Houston’s small-ball style doesn’t put them at a disadvantage against the larger Lakers after all. Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals marked the first time since the 1971 NBA Finals (Milwaukee Bucks against the Baltimore Bullets) that a playoff game featured a team with no starter shorter than 6-foot-5 against an opponent with no starter taller than 6-foot-7, according to research from Elias Sports Bureau.
As if that mattered, anyway.
“I don’t know,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “There’s just not that many plays that are above the rim. Most of them are on the floor or position or loose balls. I don’t know how many times you have to be above the rim. Every once in a while, they’re above the rim. Great. If we can control everything below the rim, I’ll take that.”
That’s precisely what Houston did in this one.
“They’re a really good team. So, we had to get off to a really good start,” Harden said. “We did that. We were just competing, competing, until we figured out what they were doing. We just tried to keep attacking. If you give them opportunities to play slow and play into their hands, they have the advantage. So, we wanted to keep our pace up, and defensively, be active; make those guys work as hard as we can and make everything tough for them.”
On occasion, the Lakers randomly sent double teams at Harden, but that seemed to only harden the guard’s resolve to attack the rim.
In the first half alone, Los Angeles sent Harden to the free-throw line on 11 occasions, with the guard scoring nine of his 25 points over the first two quarters on freebies.
If you’ve spent any amount of time watching the Rockets play, then you know that’s precisely how Harden typically finds his rhythm.
“We were careless fouling him, and that definitely gets him going,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “We know this about James. If you’re going to beat the Houston Rockets, you’ve got to play him without fouling.”
To do that, the Lakers know they’ve got to find a way to adjust to Houston’s overall team speed.
Coming off a six-day layoff after making quick work of the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round, the Lakers knew what they were getting into having faced the Rockets this season on three other occasions. They saw the speed on film; saw it just two days prior when Houston bested Oklahoma City in Game 7 of the opening round behind Harden’s late heroics on defense.
“They play with a lot of speed both offensively and defensively. You can see it on the film,” James said. “[But you don’t really understand the speed] until you get out there and get a feel for it. That’s what we did tonight: we got a feel for their speed, and we should be fully aware of that going into Game 2. We had 17 turnovers for 27 points versus a team that’s [a] 100-meter yard dash team. You cannot turn the ball over like that. It’s just that simple. It starts with myself being the primary ball handler, and it trickles down to everybody else. How do you adjust to their speed?”
It also helps to understand the all-encompassing effect that Houston’s speed played on Friday’s outcome. In addition to all the points Houston scored off turnovers, it totally negated Los Angeles’ size advantage with speed and quickness. The larger Lakers finished the game tied 41-41 with the Rockets in rebounds, and the latter won the defensive rebounding battle 37-31, thus limiting the former’s second-chance scoring opportunities.
When Harden left the game with 2:45 left in the third quarter, the Rockets led by three (76-73). Houston would storm to a 15-point advantage before its leading scorer re-entered the game, with Gordon closing out the show with his 11 points in the fourth quarter on 3-of-5 shooting.
“We’re just doing a good job of covering for each other,” Westbrook said. “We’re small out there, so we’ve got to be scrappy. We’ve got to play hard. If we don’t, our chances of winning come down. Our guys in the locker room know that. Everybody stepped up defending, rebounding. Our quickness was beneficial tonight.”
It also played a major role in breaking James’ 15-game winning streak in conference semifinals games. He also finished the game at a minus-15, his worst this postseason in 37 minutes.
Harden, meanwhile, believes Houston has finally found the formula to keep it alive in the postseason. For all Harden’s scoring acumen, he knows it’s not offense, and the Rockets’ Game 7 win over OKC served as testament to that as well as Friday’s triumph over the Lakers.
“I think where we’re great at is our defense,” Harden said. “Offensively, we can score with the best of them. But defensively, I think we’ve found it. If we can continue to just guard and lock in on our defensive coverages, the plan works. You’ve got to be a competitor. You’ve got to take on the challenge. Everything isn’t gonna be great every single night, every possession. Sometimes you’re gonna struggle. Sometimes, you’re gonna be playing well. But I think if you’ve got that competitive spirit and you have the will to want to get things done, that makes up for anybody that’s tall, that’s 7-feet.”
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