Column: Lakers have big task in cracking the Rockets’ small-ball code
Maybe it was the pizza. Maybe it was the bowling. Maybe it was the Madden.
Or maybe it was LeBron James’ wine. The way the Lakers painfully crawled through a head-throbbing second-round playoff opener against the Houston Rockets on Friday night, it could have been the wine.
Of all their various acknowledged bubble activities during the five-day vacation before their 112-97 loss — lame hangover jokes aside — it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly which, if any, contributed to the Lakers’ basic failure to show up.
Here’s a scary thought: Maybe it’s just who they are.
As they prepare for Game 2 on Sunday night at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex near Orlando, Fla., maybe the Lakers need to deal with the fact that they don’t have the overwhelming advantages they possessed after losing their first-round opener to Portland.
The Rockets are more blazers than the Blazers. The Rockets are quicker, deeper and far more dangerous. They can make the Lakers look stagnant and stilted and confused. The Lakers suddenly have found themselves in a duel that could test their very being.
“There’s got to be a complete turnaround going into Game 2,” James said.
Highlights from the Lakers’ loss to the Houston Rockets on Friday.
But is that who they are? Is that something they can become?
Certainly, there might be some truth to the bromide that a team that just played in a harrowing Game 7 two nights earlier would come into its next series with an intensity edge over the team that had been sitting around for five days.
That wouldn’t explain Denver’s opening collapse against the Clippers in the other West semifinal earlier in the week. And, to be honest, that probably didn’t explain this one.
“The Game 7 team versus the team with rest, I’ve always felt that the team who played Game 7 has a slight advantage, but we can’t look at that like any type of excuse; we’re not an excuses team,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said.
OK, no excuses, only the realities of some frightening possibilities.
Maybe they’re a big team that isn’t flexible enough to overcome the Rockets’ small ball. Playoffs are all about matchups, and so far this season the Rockets have won both games against the Lakers with the disparate lineups.
In the playoff opener, small amazingly matched big with 41 rebounds each. Small contributed to big’s 17 turnovers worth 27 points. Small bewitched big into attempting only one fewer trey.
“We were too careless throwing the ball all over the court ... taking quick shots, we’ve got to be more patient,” Vogel said. “It’s not necessarily about being big or small always, it’s what you’re doing on the court.”
Or, maybe James finally is showing his age against an energy-filled Rockets team that eventually ran him ragged. He slowly wore down in the opener and despite some dramatic, early, flying heroics, finished with zero points in a fourth quarter that decided the game.
“I think it’s the speed … they play with a lot of speed both offensively and defensively,” James said. “You can see it on film … but until you’re out there, you get a feel for it … that’s what we did tonight, we got a feel for their speed, and we’re fully aware of that going into Game 2.”
All right, then, maybe Anthony Davis will continue to have difficulty imposing his will on rumble-tough Rockets who are half his size. Davis continually settled for outside shots in Game 1, reached the free-throw line only twice and, while he finished with 25 points, he often played like a small forward.
”They’re trying to keep me away from the rim … that’s their defense,” Davis said. “[If] we make a couple more shots, it kind of opens it up. … We have to do a better job spacing and cutting.”
Or maybe, just maybe, this is the series where they really need a third option and just don’t have one. Danny Green and Kyle Kuzma each made only a third of his shots while Alex Caruso was beaten defensively for five fouls.
How shallow is this team? The Lakers entered the fourth quarter trailing by six, yet ran out a nutty lineup featuring James, Kuzma, just-activated Rajon Rondo, Markieff Morris and Dwight Howard. After about five minutes ticked off the game clock, they trailed by 19, almost single-handedly whipped by Eric Gordon, the Rockets’ third scorer.
“We’ve got to be better in a lot of things that we do,” said Vogel, who was coaching without top assistant Jason Kidd, out because of back spasms.
The Lakers are so desperate for bench help that they played the oft-injured Rondo 24 minutes even though this was his first game in nearly six months. They watched him commit four turnovers and miss two-thirds of his shots, including going one for five in that fateful fourth quarter.
“It’s a challenge working a new player into your rotation in this stage of the playoffs,” Vogel acknowledged. “But Rajon is one of the smartest players in the league … our guys’ IQ raises when he’s on the court .... He’s definitely going to help us this series.”
Playing for the first time since March 10, Rajon Rondo had an uneven performance in the Lakers’ Game 1 playoff loss to the Houston Rockets.
They better hope so. But more than getting smarter, these Lakers need to play tougher, stronger and, especially, bigger. The swarming Rockets kept the Lakers away from the offensive glass, allowing them just a dozen second-chance points. If the Lakers keep losing that battle, they lose this series.
“We’ve got to punish them on both ends of the glass,” Davis said. “We have to do a better job of attacking the ‘O’ glass and making them pay for going small.”
It was the Rockets who made the Lakers pay for going slow, epitomized midway through the fourth quarter by a loose-ball battle between James and Houston’s feisty P.J. Tucker.
The smaller guy won the fight. James fell on top him for a foul. Moments later, Gordon dashed behind two glued-to-the-floor Lakers on an embarrassing inbounds play for a layup to give the Rockets a 17-point lead.
The Lakers can’t take it for granted that those sorts of moments won’t occur again in Sunday’s Game 2. With no home-court advantage in the bubble, the Rockets’ speed and energy and momentum easily can be repeated. Just ask the floundering Milwaukee Bucks about the streaking Miami Heat.
The Lakers have to remember who they are, and who the Rockets should be, and what should be happening here.
Maybe they’re really in trouble. Or maybe Goliath just needs to start acting like Goliath.
Plaschke reported from Los Angeles.
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