Houston huddled in the tunnel before tip-off and discussed the importance of throwing the first punch, only to be walloped 117-109 on Sunday by a Los Angeles Lakers squad now acclimated to the Rockets’ speed-borne surprise from Game 1.
“Like I said after Game 1: sometimes you need one game to be able to understand the speed they played with,” Lakers star LeBron James said. “Everyone keeps talking about small ball, but their speed, their activity defensively and offensively is something that can catch you off guard in a Game 1 situation. We got a feel for that.”
In the process of tying up this Western Conference semifinals series 1-1, Los Angeles caught Houston off guard, too.
At least, briefly.
Anthony Davis (34 points, 10 rebounds) and James (28 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists) helped the Lakers speed out to a 21-point, first-half lead that Houston overcame just as quickly in the third quarter by splashing 69.2% from deep to take a 92-90 lead going into the final frame. For the game, the Rockets knocked down 22 3-pointers to tie for fourth-most in postseason history, matching the 22 shots from long range they hit in 2017 against the San Antonio Spurs, after missing 12 of their first 15 shots.
Still, Los Angeles managed to hold on with James and Davis combining for 14 of the Lakers’ 27 points in the fourth quarter, while the reserves outscored Houston’s bench 10-0.
“Our mindset going into the fourth quarter was we had some breakdowns getting to shooters, things we could tighten up and do better,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “We understand this team has the ability to make five, six, seven 3s in a row and go on big runs like they did in the third quarter and not overreact to that; to stay the course with what was working in the first half. We did that.”
The Game 2 victory moved James into a first-place tie with former Lakers great Derek Fisher for the most playoff wins (161) in NBA history, and he also moved into second place all-time in playoff 3-pointers (386).
The Lakers shot 56.6% from the field to move to 31-0 this season when they shoot 50% or better.
Most importantly, the Lakers feel like they’ve solved the mystery of Houston’s blazing small-ball speed.
“We understand how much every possession, how much scrambling, how much running, how much pace, how physical the game is going to be against this team because they’re extremely good, no matter who’s out on the floor,” James said.
Here are three takeaways from Sunday’s game:
1. Russell Westbrook struggles
You can attribute some of Houston’s issues in the first half to Westbrook’s play, as he scored just two points on 1-of-8 shooting and 0-for-3 from 3-point range in addition to committing half of the Rockets’ eight turnovers that Los Angeles turned into 17 points.
Westbrook finished the game with just 10 points on 4-of-15 shooting, with a game-high seven turnovers to go with four assists. It’s important to note that for the game, Los Angeles scored 27 points off Houston’s 17 turnovers.
“I don’t know. Right now, I feel like I’m just running around,” Westbrook said, when asked about helping out James Harden when he’s trapped out on the wing. “So, I’ve got to look at film and figure out how to be effective. Some of it is my fault, some are missed calls. But it’s on me. I don’t point fingers at anybody else [about] my own game. I own my mistakes. I own what I do, and that’s that.”
The Lakers outscored Houston by 14 points in Westbrook’s 33 minutes on the floor, which registered as the worst plus-minus among Rockets starters. Behind Harden, Westbrook is the team’s second-leading scorer. But Eric Gordon (24 points) filled that role for Game 2, while Harden produced a team-high 27 points.
Houston coach Mike D’Antoni expressed confidence in a Westbrook rebound for Game 3.
Despite Westbrook’s struggles, Houston still outscored Los Angeles 41-23 in the third quarter. Those 41 points rank as the most the Lakers have surrendered thus far in the postseason.
“We’re not gonna win anything without Russell,” D’Antoni said. “That’s not even a question on when he’s gonna work through it. He’s fine. He’s more upset than anybody. He’ll be fine. I’m not worried about him. He’s still working his way back, and he’ll play with great intensity. He’ll always be aggressive. He needs to be aggressive. That’s why he’s Russell Westbrook. He’ll work it out.”
2. Rajon Rondo’s resurgence
Playing in just his second game since before the NBA suspended the season back in March due to the coronavirus pandemic, Rondo shook off a shaky Game 1 performance with a vintage night.
The Lakers outscored the Rockets by 28 points in the 29 minutes Rondo played, as he produced 10 points on 4-of-9 shooting with nine assists and a team-high five steals.
Vogel described Rondo’s impact as virtually immeasurable.
“His impact on our team is measured in swag,” Vogel said. “Just the confidence that he brings to our group, you saw that. Game 1 was his first game in six months or something like that. So, you have to forgive a little bit of rust. He was a plus-28 tonight, took the assignment of guarding James [Harden], guarding Russ [Westbrook] at certain times, and wreaked havoc defensively for us both on the ball and in helping us mix coverages. Just a great Rondo performance.”
Rondo scored eight points to go with four assists, three rebounds, a pair of steals and a block in Game 1.
Before that outing, Rondo hadn’t played the entire time the Lakers have been in the bubble after undergoing surgery in July to repair a fractured right thumb. Rondo missed time again in the opening round of the playoffs due to back spasms.
“He was just extremely aggressive,” James said. “Not just offensively, but defensively taking the challenge on James [Harden], taking the challenge of whomever he was guarding, just trying to lead. That’s what [Rondo] is: he’s a leader. For us to have him back in the postseason, it’s a key for our team. He comes in, he pushes the tempo, he gets guys involved. It doesn’t always show up in the stat sheet with [Rondo], the intangibles that he does offensively and defensively. His nose is always around the ball, and he just makes plays for us.”
3. Lakers’ bench shines
Earlier, we mentioned Los Angeles’ bench outscoring the Rockets’ reserves 10-0 in the fourth quarter, but we’d be remiss to not discuss the group’s impact on the entire game.
Just two Lakers bench players — Kyle Kuzma (13 points) and Markieff Morris (16 points) — either matched or surpassed the production of Houston’s reserves. The Lakers bench outscored Houston’s reserves 41-13, in addition to contributing seven steals. That made for a difficult night for Houston, as its starters combined for 96 of its 109 points.
Morris inflicted the majority of his damage right out the gates with 12 points on 4-of-4 shooting from 3-point range, as Los Angeles finished the first quarter leading 36-20.
“We built this team to be able to play in different ways; to be able to play big versus teams, be able to play small, to be able to play in between,” James said. “We built that from the beginning and we’ve always had that in our toolbox. Tonight was an example of that, being able to go to that. Smooth (Morris) was spectacular off the bench giving us that instant offense. He was unbelievable for us. Doe (Rondo), A.C. (Alex Caruso), Kuz (Kyle Kuzma), those guys came in and gave us a big boost.”
Morris’ big night took away minutes from Los Angeles’ big men. Vogel made it a point to mention the Lakers haven’t abandoned their centers this series.
“Our centers are still gonna have a role in this series,” he said. “The plan was to go with Dwight [Howard] as well. We’ve been working with those guys in terms of how to play against this team, which is unique. But we went on a heck of a run toward the end of the first with Markieff at the five. It’s just how the game played out. Sometimes, you’ve got to ride that hot hand with the hot lineup. The plan was to play JaVale [McGee] and Dwight [Howard[, but we obviously audibled at that point.”
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