2020 Playoffs | West Semifinals: (1) Lakers vs. (4) Rockets

Rockets force Lakers to go small, might regret the result

Tucker: "We’ve just got to do what we do faster, harder, for longer. That’s all that matters"

Houston’s small-ball style generates the headlines, but the Los Angeles counterattack to it might be playing significantly into the results we’ve seen over the last two games of this Western Conference semifinal series.

After the Lakers snatched a 2-1 lead in the series Tuesday night, Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni talked about his team running “out of a little steam,” saying, “I think our legs got a little tired. They upped their stuff.”

Perhaps the Los Angeles Lakers’ small-ball lineup of LeBron James, Rajon Rondo, Markieff Morris, Alex Caruso and Kyle Kuzma factored heavily into all of that.

“Last game, it was Markieff [Morris], this game it was Rondo,” said James Harden, after scoring 33 in Tuesday’s losing effort. “So, we’ve just got to make sure that we’re engaged and locked in on the role players.”

Given their impact on these last two games, that certainly makes sense.

It’s a small sample size, no doubt, but over the last two games the Lakers small-ball lineup of James, Rondo, Morris, Caruso and Kuzma has scored 56 points on 33 possessions, while allowing just 30 points on 31 defensive possessions. Although they’ve played a total of just 16 minutes on the floor together over the last two games, you can’t minimize the group’s impact (169.7 offensive rating, 96.8 defensive rating, 81.8% on defensive rebounds and a true shooting percentage of 93.1)

Over the last two games, the Lakers have outscored the Rockets 57-37 in the fourth quarter, limiting Harden to 3-for-7 shooting from the field and just five points in the fourth quarter of each of his last two outings.

“We’re doing a good job, numerically,” said Lakers coach Frank Vogel. “The thing about James and this team is you’re never comfortable. It doesn’t matter what the score of the game is, what the series looks like. We’re just not gonna be comfortable against a team that has the type of firepower that they have. We’re going to just continue to try to execute our coverage and scheme to try to minimize him and obviously the backside 3’s as much as possible.”

So, it comes as no surprise that of the 16 minutes spent on the floor together, that Lakers lineup of James, Rondo, Morris, Caruso and Kuzma has logged half of those minutes solely in the fourth quarter of the last two games, producing impressive numbers.

Vogel didn’t deploy that lineup in Game 1. When he did for Game 2, the group shot 87.5% in outscoring the Rockets 35-14.

“We’ve got to play smarter, and harder for longer periods of time,” said Rockets center P.J. Tucker on Wednesday. “Obviously, going into the fourth tied up, they made some good shots [in Game 3]. Rondo made some good shots, Kuzma made some good shots. It’s because they got some stops. It’s just how the game goes. It’s been tough all series.

“But for us, we’ve just got to do what we do faster, harder, for a longer amount of time. That’s all that matters. Obviously with the doubles on James, Russ [Westbrook] in the post, we’ve got to be able to get to our spots, be able to make plays, the right plays. Like I said: we do it throughout the game. We’ve just got to do it for longer.”

The question is whether that’s possible, given the way D’Antoni splits up Houston’s minutes. Six Rockets — Harden, Westbrook, Tucker, Robert Covington, Eric Gordon and Jeff Green — played 35-plus minutes in Game 3. Just two Lakers — James and Anthony Davis — logged as many minutes in Game 3.

Los Angeles utilized 10 players for Game 3, while Houston played with an eight-man rotation without Danuel House Jr. available due to personal reasons. When House played in Game 2, D’Antoni utilized a nine-man rotation with each of his starters playing at least 33 minutes, compared to just two Lakers logging as many minutes.

We’re just not getting it done. That’s the simple answer.”

— Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni

So, it begs the question of whether Houston possesses the stamina to finish games while leaning so heavily on the starters. D’Antoni was asked before Wednesday’s practice whether fatigue has played a role in Houston’s fourth quarter woes.

“We’re just not getting it done,” D’Antoni said. “That’s the simple answer. Last night, it was a question of we had five turnovers in the fourth. When it comes to a time to win the game, to be more assertive and more careful with the ball and just will ourselves to a win, we haven’t done that.”

Down 2-1 going into Thursday’s Game 4, the Rockets find themselves in familiar territory. In each of the last two postseasons, Houston fought off series deficits against Golden State to tie things up before eventually suffering elimination.

Covington returns for Game 4 after going through the concussion protocol Wednesday, the result of suffering a nasty blow to the nose from Anthony Davis in Game 3 that led to him hitting his head on the floor. D’Antoni said, “we haven’t heard yet,” when asked about House’s availability for Game 4.

“We need to be more aggressive definitely defensively [late in games],” D’Antoni said. “We’re in the right spots, but we’re not being active in those spots. We need to turn up the heat. That’s what they did after Game 1, where we willed ourselves to good stuff. In Games 2 and 3, they willed their way to better games. We’ve got to match that. Structurally, we’ll tweak some things here and there, how we guard guys. We’ll change that. But overall, it’s a dogfight. Usually, the dog with the most fight is gonna win. We’ve got to be that dog.”

Even when the other team is consistently unleashing more dogs.

Michael C. Wright is a senior writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here , find his archive here and follow him on Twitter .

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