Houston Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni compared trying out his new, decidedly small-ball lineup against the West-leading Lakers to “taking a test that you haven’t studied for yet,” with all the anxiety that it causes.
Not one of his starters Thursday stood taller than 6-foot-6; four of the Lakers’ five starters were at least that tall. Forward Robert Covington, acquired by the Rockets in a four-team trade that was finalized on Wednesday, became their tallest player at 6-foot-7 when he came off the bench in the first quarter. No one taller played a single minute on Thursday for Houston.
“He’s a good defender and shoots threes. Good basketball player. Just one more shooter and defender,” D’Antoni said of his newest player. “Actually we got bigger, that’s good,” D’Antoni added with a smile. “We’re getting up there.”
What the Rockets lacked in size they made up for in sheer determination and a staunch defensive effort down the stretch that limited the Lakers to 18 points in the fourth quarter. Despite their distinct height disadvantage, the Rockets lost the rebound battle by only one. And despite NBA scoring leader James Harden’s poor shooting night and 14-point performance, the Rockets won 121-111, propelled by Russell Westbrook’s stellar 41-point effort.
“Anytime you try something different, these guys have got to believe in it. This helps. This helps a lot,” D’Antoni said. “Because if you come in here and get spanked and we’re a little, ‘Oh, maybe we can’t do this.’ So they’re fired up and we’ll keep trying.
“It helps a lot. Regardless of it’s only one game and all that, the confidence for the guys is good.”
Call it a big win for small ball and a teaching moment for the Lakers in case they face a test against the Rockets in the playoffs this spring. “That’s a total different commitment to it, being small the whole time,” Lakers center Javale McGee said with more than a little admiration.
Call it a memorable occasion, too, for Westbrook, the Long Beach native and former UCLA standout who led the Bruins to the NCAA Final Four in each of his two seasons with them. His 41-point, five-assist performance lifted him past 20,000 career points and moved up him to 14th on the NBA career assists list, with 7,212. He joined LeBron James and Oscar Robertson as the only players who have scored 20,000 points, recorded 7,000 assists and pulled down 6,000 rebounds. Elite company, indeed.
“Each night I go out and leave it on the floor, and that’s what I want to be known for, going out and playing my ... off every time and competing at a very, very high level that not many people can compete at,” Westbrook said. “I’m thankful and grateful to be with those guys.”
He felt the presence of someone else on Thursday, someone who was missing but whose retired jerseys are illuminated in the otherwise dark rafters at Staples Center. Westbrook considered Kobe Bryant a close friend and missed him. Westbrook honored Bryant the best way he knew how, playing with a ferocity Bryant would have appreciated.
“It was emotional,” Westbrook said of playing here so soon after Bryant’s death in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26, “but knowing the relationship me and Kobe had, I know his mentality because I feel like we shared that. I know if he was here, I know what he would want me to do--and that’s play my ... off, and that’s what I did.”
They all played hard on Thursday as they smoothly absorbed Covington, who hit a three to put Houston ahead 115-111 with 2 minutes, 40 seconds left and twisted the dagger when he hit another three, after a Harden rebound, to put Houston up 120-111 with 1:27 to play. “It’s huge, man,” Westbrook said of adding Covington, who likely will become a starter.
Huge for small ball, that is. “It’s how the team functions best. If we had a different team we’d play differently,” D’Antoni said. “With Russell who he is and we have little guys that guard bigs, we just have a weird kind of team and we just try to figure out how to play them the best we can, and we think this is it.”
Going small might not work so well in the playoffs, but it was effective on Thursday. The Lakers weren’t surprised by what the Rockets did but still couldn’t stop them. “We knew what they were going to do. We know what their roster is, so we scouted it,” McGee said. “It was they just hit shots that they usually hit, they hit some contested shots, Russ had a good game getting to the rim, and they had a good game plan.”
Lakers guard Danny Green also praised the Rockets. “They did what they were supposed to do. We made some adjustments and didn’t execute those adjustments,” he said. “It’s a new look for us. It’s something that we have to get used to playing against.”
For the Rockets, this was merely the first part of a season-long exam. Beating the top team in the West didn’t matter to them, according to Westbrook.
“We know what our main goal is,” he said. “It’s a big win for us, definitely, but we know what the ultimate goal is and this is one step forward in that direction.”
One small step, maybe, but in some ways a big statement.