NBA

Rockets Race Past Lakers to Set A Speedy, Sturdy Tone

The Lakers may be taller, but the Rockets were stronger and faster in Game 1.

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Don’t panic, Lakers Nation. You have seen this before.

A couple of weeks ago, actually. A team (Portland) stepped onto the Lakers’ digital home floor and won the opener of L.A.’s first round series. The Blazers were the darlings of the bubble … until the Lakers smacked them by 23 two nights later.

It’s the same with Houston, right? The Rockets, like Portland, entered a series against L.A. a little sharper. Houston went seven games with Oklahoma City, winning a grueling clincher. The Lakers, after a week’s worth of fishing, looked flat.

Nothing to worry about. L.A. will bounce back in Game 2.

Right?

No one should be penciling Houston into the conference finals after one game. But it wasn’t just that the Rockets won. It was the way they won. They won with offense, sure. James Harden had 36 points in a breezy 34 minutes. Russell Westbrook was erratic from the three-point line (1-for-5) but solid from everywhere else (9-for-19). Eric Gordon punched in 23 points. Austin Rivers added 10 in Houston’s 112-97 victory.

But the Rockets won with defense, too. The Lakers averaged 118.6 points against Portland. Against Houston, they scored 97. They shot 42.2% from the floor. They made a dreadful 28.9% of their threes. They committed 17 turnovers that the Rockets turned into 27 points.

“You cannot turn the ball over like that,” LeBron James said.

Much was made about the Lakers size advantage coming into this one. L.A. plays a rotations of 7-footers. The small forward (James) is bigger than anyone Houston puts on the floor. “Stout,” was how Mike D’Antoni referred to his roster. But, added, D’Antoni, “they can all touch the rim.” Yet it was the Rockets that were more physical. The rebounding (41-41) was dead even. Houston had a slight edge in points in the paint. The Lakers were taller. The Rockets were stronger.

“I don’t know why people keep saying we’re small,” Harden said. “I don’t care if you’re seven feet, if you don’t have heart, it doesn’t matter … it doesn’t matter how tall you are. If you have the heart, and you’re a competitor, you can be out there on the court.”

Indeed. P.J. Tucker has heart. When the Rockets traded Clint Capela in February, Tucker, all of 6’5”, became Houston’s starting center. Tucker had six points and nine rebounds against the Lakers. His plus/minus was plus-19. He defended James, Anthony Davis and Dwight Howard. He dented the floor with his sturdy, 245-pound frame.

“P.J. has taken a challenge his entire life,” D’Antoni said. “That’s why he’s in the NBA.”

The Lakers couldn’t assert any strength. And they couldn’t keep up with the Rockets speed. “They are extremely fast,” James said, admitting that what they saw on film didn’t prepare them for it. James compared Houston to the early 2000’s L.A. Rams, the Greatest Show on Turf, the Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt led teams that posted record breaking offensive numbers. “No way,” James said, “you can simulate that speed.”

It’s one game, and James has certainly been in this position before. But this isn’t about the Lakers playing better. They need to adjust. Frank Vogel needs to adjust. Vogel elected to stay big, keeping the Davis-McGee frontcourt intact. That may need to change. Rajon Rondo, inactive since March, played 25 minutes off the bench and, predictably, struggled. L.A. doesn’t want to give up all its advantages, but you can’t chase a Ferrari with a tank.

Houston has an opportunity now. Harden wasn’t overextended in this one. Westbrook (32 minutes) wasn’t either. No one really looked fatigued. The Rockets have extreme confidence in this style of play, and have the kind of versatile frontcourt players (Tucker, Robert Covington and Jeff Green) that can give the Lakers fits. And they can play better: Houston attempted 39 threes, making 35.9% of them. There’s more there.

L.A. is in for a fight. The weirdly constructed Rockets drew first blood, and they will keep coming. Harden will keep scoring. Westbrook will keep driving. Everyone else will keep shooting. “Our confidence never changes, win or lose,” Harden said. This will be an unconventional series. The Lakers will have to figure out how to take advantage of it. 

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