Deciding there was nothing else they could do, several Lakers put their hands behind their backs while trying to defend the Houston Rockets during the third quarter Thursday night.
“To defend them, you just can’t touch them,” Kyle Kuzma said. “Just trying not to touch them.”
Said Lakers coach Luke Walton: “I think they were just trying to make a point.”
Free-throw shooting helped decide the outcome. The Lakers missed too many free throws, making only 15 of 27, and couldn’t keep Rockets guard James Harden off the line.
Harden scored 50 points and notched a triple-double in a 126-111 Rockets victory. He matched a season high by shooting 19 free throws, making 18.
“You can’t put him on the line,” LeBron James said. “We put him on the line [almost] 20 times. He’s already talented as ... offensively. Can put the ball in the hole multiple ways — drive, step-back threes. But you give him easy points, when you put a guy like that on the line, you can’t put [Kevin Durant] on the line for 20 free throws. You can’t put [Harden] on the line for 20 free throws.
“You can’t put any of our scorers that we have in our league on the line 20 times because they just see the ball go in the hole.”
Harden scored 17 points in the fourth quarter, six on consecutive three-point baskets that capped a personal 9-0 run and extended the Rockets’ lead to 12 points. That marked their first double-digit lead of the game and it came with only 3 minutes 12 seconds to play.
The win helped the Rockets, who reached the Western Conference finals last season before losing to the Golden State Warriors, inch closer to .500 at 13-14. The Lakers are 17-11.
“I just tried to make plays, honestly,” Harden said. “Like I’ve been saying over and over, we’re in a hole right now, we got to find a way to get out of this hole, and we will.”
James scored 29 points with five rebounds and four assists, and Kyle Kuzma scored 24 points, making eight of 17 shots.
Kuzma was the only Laker who didn’t struggle at the foul line, making all seven of his free throws.
As a whole, though, the Lakers’ frequent nemesis bit them.
With opportunities to take the lead early or pull away, they missed 11 of their first 17 free throws.
James missed his first four before making his final two.
At halftime, the Lakers trailed 62-56.
“We got to make free throws,” Kuzma said. “That’s one thing that we could have done to affect this game tonight and just not turn the ball over.”
Free throws, though, have been a problem all season for the Lakers. They have made only 70.6% of their foul shots.
Allowing opponents to get to the line at an alarming rate typically isn’t their curse. The Lakers have given up 21.5 free throws a game, eighth-fewest in the NBA.
Harden, though, has proved a worthy adversary.
He has attempted 15 or more free throws in five games this season, two against the Lakers.
Josh Hart, who scored 15 points to help keep the Lakers close, was called for five fouls, three against Harden.
“I don’t got nothing to say about that,” Hart said when asked about defending Harden. “What I’m going to say I’m going to lose some money so I’m not saying nothing about that.”
Though there isn’t much time during the season to specifically address defending Harden without fouling, Walton said the Lakers prepared for it leading up to the game.
He added, though, that young players can sometimes struggle with the concept.
Said James: “I thought a few of them was tough calls.