Lakers can’t evade Rockets’ defense or stop James Harden in Game 1 loss

The Rockets' Russell Westbrook, left, loses the ball while being defended by the Lakers' Anthony Davis on Sept. 4, 2020.The Rockets' Russell Westbrook, left, loses the ball while being defended by the Lakers' Anthony Davis on Sept. 4, 2020.
<figcaption class="C($c-fuji-grey-h) Fz(13px) Py(5px) Lh(1.5)" title="The Rockets' Russell Westbrook, left, loses the ball while being defended by the Lakers' Anthony Davis during Game 1 on Friday night. Westbrook had 24 points, nine rebounds and six assists in Houston's 112-97 win. Davis finished with 25 points and 14 rebounds.  (Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)» data-reactid=»18″>

The Rockets’ Russell Westbrook, left, loses the ball while being defended by the Lakers’ Anthony Davis during Game 1 on Friday night. Westbrook had 24 points, nine rebounds and six assists in Houston’s 112-97 win. Davis finished with 25 points and 14 rebounds.  (Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

It wasn’t the three-point shooting contest one might have expected from a game against Houston, but the Rockets got every other kind of shot they wanted.

The team maligned for its defense — led by a coach often accused of not caring enough about defense — held the Lakers below 100 points.

<p class="canvas-atom canvas-text Mb(1.0em) Mb(0)–sm Mt(0.8em)–sm" type="text" content="For the second consecutive playoff series, the Lakers dropped Game 1. This time, they lost 112-97 to the Rockets, who were fueled by 36 points from James Harden in 34 minutes, 24 by Russell Westbrook, 23 by Eric Gordon and a disruptive defensive performance by P.J. Tucker.» data-reactid=»25″>For the second consecutive playoff series, the Lakers dropped Game 1. This time, they lost 112-97 to the Rockets, who were fueled by 36 points from James Harden in 34 minutes, 24 by Russell Westbrook, 23 by Eric Gordon and a disruptive defensive performance by P.J. Tucker.

<p class="canvas-atom canvas-text Mb(1.0em) Mb(0)–sm Mt(0.8em)–sm" type="text" content="The Lakers, meanwhile, got 25 points from Anthony Davis and 20 from LeBron James, while Alex Caruso added 14.» data-reactid=»26″>The Lakers, meanwhile, got 25 points from Anthony Davis and 20 from LeBron James, while Alex Caruso added 14.

“We couldn’t get a rhythm offensively,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “Thought we did a better job in the second half especially defensively … but we couldn’t get in a rhythm offensively starting the fourth.”

Said James: “I think it’s the speed. They play with a lot of speed, obviously, starting with the head of the snake in Russ and they play with a lot of speed both offensively and defensively. And you can watch it on film and you can see it on film, 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.”

That speed translated into turnovers and points off turnovers. James said over and over during his postgame news conference that the Lakers’ biggest problem was that they committed 17 turnovers, which led to 27 Rockets points.

“It probably hurt the Lakers more being off [six days],” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “They’re a little rusty. I expect them to play better as the series going on. Every game is a new story. And we’re going to start from the beginning two days from now.”

The Lakers’ 7-0 start inspired confidence, but Harden was responsible for 10 of the Rockets’ next 12 points, helping Houston tie the score at 12.

There were some signs early that this might be a tougher night for the Lakers. They had trouble stopping Harden without fouling him. The former MVP scored 12 points in the first quarter and shot three free throws. He scored 13 points in the second quarter and shot eight free throws.

“We were careless fouling him and that definitely gets him going,” Vogel said. “We know this about James. If you’re gonna beat the Houston Rockets, you gotta play him without fouling.”

James had some highlight-reel moments in the first half. With 8:32 left in the second quarter, he drove toward the basket and as he elevated for a dunk, Westbrook tried to get in front of him. Westbrook simply became a victim of the moment. Rob Pelinka patted the top of his head from where he sat, in the distanced spectator seats where more than a dozen family members and guests of the Lakers sat.

The Lakers tied it at 52 with 3:21 left in the second quarter on a floater from Rajon Rondo, playing in his first game since March 10. But at halftime they trailed 63-55, still unable to find a sustainable answer to Harden.

Furthermore, the Rockets had figured out how to slow the Lakers’ fast-break offense.

“We kind of stopped running too,” Davis said. “They would make a shot and we weren’t getting the ball out as quickly as we used to. And wasn’t pushing the pace. We have to get back to that Game 2.”

In the fourth quarter, the Rockets took control of the game. They opened the final period with a 16-3 run that gave them a 19-point lead. The Lakers never recovered.

“We had 17 turnovers for 27 points versus a team that’s a 100-yard dash team you cannot turn the ball over like that,” James said. “That starts with myself, being the primary ballhandler.”

They’ve been in this position before.

The Lakers also lost Game 1 of their first-round series against the Portland Trail Blazers, only to win the next four games to advance to this round.

The Rockets, meanwhile, needed seven games to eliminate the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The first round served as a cautionary tale for the Lakers, though they didn’t dwell on it. Vogel worried about their mental preparedness compared with that of a team that had been playing for the six days since the Lakers’ last game.

Now the Lakers know better what they’re up against.

“They’re a good defensive team, especially since they’ve been here in the bubble,” Davis said. “All their guys are like-sized and they’re able to switch everything, kind of how Golden State does. Switch everything and then just cover each other. … So our passing has to be a lot better than it was tonight, but we make the right plays and we can make them pay.”