Wednesday’s showdown between the Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Lakers not only decided the outcome of the regular season series, but was also the first contest between these two Western conference teams since they made the two NBA trade deadline deals.
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James Harden and his 46-21 Rockets currently are slated at the No.3 position in the West, while the Lakers are still No. 2 in the race towards the lottery sweepstakes. Mike D’Antoni has emerged as a frontrunner for the NBA coach of the year award, after two failed stops with the Lakers and New York Knicks. D’Antoni’s starting lineup featured Harden, Patrick Beverly, Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson and Clint Capela.
Luke Walton is using this final stretch of the regular season to alternate and evaluate his 20-47 Lakers. Upon making some lineup changes these past few games, Walton has elected to start Nick Young and Jordan Clarkson against the Rockets. Ivica Zubac, Julius Randle and Brandon Ingram joined the other two starters.
Those at the Toyota Center understood that Wednesday’s contest was going to be an up-tempo game, featuring a lot of three-point attempts. Both teams actually received a few open attempts early on, but couldn’t capitalize in the first two minutes.
Randle got the Lakers started on the night with a running hook to the right, which was followed by an impressive drive by Ingram past Ariza in the lane. On the other hand, Harden facilitated an easy early lob to Capela, capitalized on two free throws and fed Ariza in the corner for a three.
The Lakers weren’t afraid of capitalizing on fast breaks early on, with many aggressive takes to the basket. Randle hit another lay up through contact, giving the Lakers an early 8-7 lead. The power forward clearly had an advantage against the Rockets, especially early on again Anderson. After those two buckets, Capela switched onto Randle in an effort to stop him. However, the Kentucky alumnus got past him also with a quick first step for a three-point play.
The Rockets are currently fourth in the NBA with a 103.1 possessions per game and were getting up and down the court. Harden was the constant outlet on the wings, filling the middle and creating either for himself or for his teammates. Harden already accomplished five assists halfway through the first quarter, with his team up 19-13.
Former Rocket Corey Brewer received a welcome back video from the Houston faithful and was inserted alongside D’Angelo Russell with five minutes left in the first. Former Laker Lou William was also inserted just after them, as the former trade pieces now can contribute to their new teams.
The first quarter was not a strong start defensively for the Lakers, as they had trouble finding matchups in transition. Harden used his aggressive dribbling as a distraction to find his teammates, but would gladly take it to the rim when not being addressed.
Walton was clearly not happy with the turnovers in the first quarter, as the Lakers already had nine turnovers off of many lazy and predictable passes. The bench mob was able to do a better job hustling towards passing lanes, while slowing the pace down.
A pair of steals led to dunks for Ingram and Larry Nance Jr., but the Lakers were already down 33-21 with less than two minutes in the first quarter. At the end of the first quarter, the Rockets held a 37-26 lead.
The Lakers went small to start the second quarter, with Russell, Tyler Ennis, Young, Brewer and Nance Jr. Although the Rockets had both Sam Dekker and Nene on the court, the shooters spaced the floor enough to spread the ball around.
Russell seemed to be having a difficult time in his new role off the dribble, with four early turnovers on the game. The ball was stripped multiple times on drives to basket, on top of a blown lay up on a nice drive to the basket. Walton had Ennis bring the ball up, in order to use Russell in a combo guard role off the ball.
With just under nine minutes left in the half, the Rockets expanded their lead to 16 points, winning the assist (12-3) and steals (7-2) battle. Williams started to get hot in the second quarter, scoring at will against the Lakers. He hit his first five shots of the game, including three three-pointers, to give him a game-leading 14 points four minutes in the second quarter.
Although they had a large lead, the Rockets did not have an answer for Randle. He recovered his own loose ball for a bucket in the paint, followed by a fast break three-point play on a floater from the middle.
The Rockets continued to play him aggressively, sending a lot of bodies to try and cause some havoc. During one possession, they sent two bigs at him on a drive to the basket, which resulted in an offensive foul for Randle. However, Clarkson found him on the wing and he capitalized with another three-point play on the weak foul by Williams.
The Lakers were executing offensively at a decent pace, but were not able to get the necessary stops early to get back into the game. As the half dwindled down, the Lakers were able to adjust to their sets and created some turnovers. Harden attempted to thread the needle and got his fifth turnover of the half, which led to another fast break bucket.
At the end of the first half, the Lakers trailed by a score of 66-52. Although the Lakers were down 14, Randle had perhaps the best first half of his career, with 22 points (8-for-11 FG) and seven rebounds. On the other hand, Harden (10) had more assists than the entire Lakers team (5).
The Lakers opened the second half with a 4-0 run, which cut the lead back down to 10. Randle hit a step-back jump shot over Anderson, which gave him a career-high 26 for the night, with 10 minutes still left in the third quarter.
As hard as it is to believe, the Lakers got their first three-pointer in the second half (1-for-12), thanks to Ingram’s three-pointer on the assist from Clarkson. Randle was able to get to the basket again, with a right-handed lay up that give him 28 for the night. The basket cut the lead to single digits, but the Rockets answered back quickly just as they do.
Zubac had a hard time getting involved in the game, as he was in constant foul trouble throughout his night. His fourth foul on the night caused Walton to quickly sub him out, in order to be able to provide some interior defense.
Ingram’s second three of the quarter brought the Lakers within nine, but Harden bounced back quickly with a lob to Nene for the 79-68 lead. Ingram was also having a strong performance, with 18 points via 8-for-9 field goal shooting, with a great touch on his mid-range and three-point attempts.
Clarkson then followed with his own three-pointer, cutting the lead to 79-71. However, the Rockets 7-0 run extended their lead back to 86-71. Harden obtained his 17th triple-double of the season towards the end of third quarter, with 18 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists.
Both teams exchanged a few buckets during the final two minutes of the third quarter, concluded by a fast break dunk for Nene, as the Rockets took a 93-75 lead into the fourth quarter.
Williams opened up the fourth quarter with back-to-back three-pointers, extending the Rockets lead to 22. Walton called a timeout in frustration, as the Lakers already lost their matchups at the beginning of the fourth quarter.
The Rockets got really hot to start the fourth quarter, using a mirage of three-pointers makes to extend their lead to almost 30 points. Eric Gordon knocked down his first three of the game and followed by finding Dekker for an easy bucket at the lead.
As the fourth quarter progressed on, it seemed as though the Lakers defensive effort decreased. The young core was having trouble keeping up with their matchups throughout the contest, while also being beat on the 50/50 balls.
Beverly’s aggressive defensive manner was bothering the young players of the Lakers, especially Russell. He got Russell to commit multiple offensive fouls, including his sixth halfway through the fourth. Russell finished with five points, two rebounds, two assists and seven turnovers off the bench.
The Rockets continued their up-tempo pace even with the 20+ lead, as their playmakers continued to attack the basket. The Rockets used a stretch of consecutive three-point plays, followed by a corner three from Bobby Brown.
At this point in the game, Walton inserted Thomas Robinson, Nwaba, Clarkson, Ingram and Ennis to finish out the game. The final minutes of the game turned into garbage time, as both teams just went back and forth in an offensive rush.
Randle’s career high 32 points wouldn’t be enough, as the Rockets cruised to a 139-100 win.