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Lakers and Frank Vogel take the experimental route in loss to Rockets

Rockets guard James Harden passes the ball between Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma and forward Anthony Davis.
Houston Rockets guard James Harden passes the ball between Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma and forward Anthony Davis during the second half of the Lakers’ 113-97 loss Thursday.
(Kim Klement / Associated Press)

Just as halftime was about to expire, Dwight Howard took a three-pointer and sank it. Then he shuffled to his right and sank another from the top of the arc.

During the regular season, the Lakers often joked about Howard being a three-point specialist. On Thursday night he was the only true center who got any playing time for the Lakers.

Against a Houston Rockets team that likes to go small, the Lakers decided to try some smaller lineups as well. They even made starting center JaVale McGee inactive for the game.

At center they played Anthony Davis, who typically prefers to play power forward. They started Kyle Kuzma at power forward, Danny Green at small forward, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope at shooting guard and Quinn Cook at point guard.

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Despite the new-look lineup, the Lakers fell to the Rockets, 113-97. Rockets star James Harden led all scorers with 39 points, playing 35 minutes. Kuzma led the Lakers with 21 points, making eight of his 16 shots, with five rebounds, three assists and two blocks. Davis played 30 minutes and scored 17 points with 12 rebounds and seven turnovers.

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Lakers vs. Houston Rockets highlights.

“They’re a unique team with how they play on both ends of the floor so we did some things poorly at times, we did some things well at times,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “So, you just learn from the tape and you put it in the game plan for the next time you play these guys and learn to attack their switching a little bit better than we did.”

It was a night for experimentation in part because of what players the Lakers had available.

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LeBron James missed the game because of groin soreness in the same area that caused him to miss five weeks during the 2018-19 season. Vogel called it an area of concern. Alex Caruso missed the game with a sore neck. Although McGee was inactive, the Lakers simply called it a “coach’s decision.”

Vogel went 11 players deep into his rotation with Dion Waiters, Markieff Morris, Talen Horton-Tucker, Jared Dudley, J.R. Smith and Howard coming off the bench.

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The Rockets, meanwhile, were missing point guard Russell Westbrook because of a sore hamstring, but quickly pulled ahead of the Lakers. They had a seven-point lead after one quarter and extended it to a nine-point lead by halftime. For most of the second half, though, the Lakers trailed by double digits.

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“Tonight we had an emphasis to try to touch the paint and find other guys,” Green said. “We didn’t do it as well as we wanted to. We didn’t get as many three-point attempts as we would have liked to, and they got a bunch. But it’s something to look at and learn from.”

With the loss, the Lakers fell to 51-16, but having clinched the top seed in the Western Conference on Monday, so the stakes were low for them. For the Rockets, the stakes were a bit higher. Houston started the night sixth in the West, but the win gave them the same record as the Utah Jazz, who are the fourth seed.

The Phoenix Suns were the last team in the Western Conference granted access to the NBA’s bubble, and Devin Booker has led them into the playoff conversation.

The Lakers have lost three of the five games they have played in the bubble, and dropped both games of a back-to-back for the first time all season.

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“I think it was a valuable lesson for us today,” Kuzma said. “I think for us, we had a lot of guys out and for us we have to have a next-man-up mentality no matter what and also play with that certain type of energy. … That margin for error kind of goes slightly tighter when you don’t have those types of playmakers out there.”

Three observations from the Lakers’ loss to the Houston Rockets on Thursday:

1. The Lakers went nearly all of the second quarter without attempting a three-pointer. It was just as well, it’s an area where they’ve been struggling and in the first half they missed all six of the threes they took.

2. A question for the Lakers throughout this season has been whether they can survive when LeBron James isn’t playing. Thursday night’s game didn’t provide clear answers as more than James was missing from their lineup.

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3. Rookie Talen Horton-Tucker saw his first bubble action on Thursday, playing 19 minutes. He scored his first NBA points against the Rockets and finished with 10.


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