Lakers turn in best defensive performance of season in beating Rockets

Houston Rockets guard Eric Gordon tries to shoot over Lakers forward Carmelo Anthony.
Houston Rockets guard Eric Gordon, left, tries to shoot over Lakers forward Carmelo Anthony during the first half of the Lakers’ win Sunday at Staples Center.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

NBA coaches generally don’t have time to pore over film of their upcoming opponents during the season. Internal issues almost always are more pressing than what’s going on with the other guys.

But with Houston about to play the Lakers twice in three days, you’d think Rockets coach Stephen Silas spent a little more time on Lakers’ tape than most.

As for the film he was watching? It must’ve been vintage.

“I’m deathly afraid of their defense,” Silas said before the Lakers’ 95-85 win Sunday, singling out DeAndre Jordan, Dwight Howard, LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook. “They’re so big and long and experienced and can cover for each other. ... When you have that size, when you have DJ and Dwight and then you have LeBron and AD and then Russ, it’s hard not to be a really disruptive defensive team.”


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However, entering Sunday, James, Westbrook, Davis and Carmelo Anthony weren’t playing much like All-Stars on defense. More like, they and the rest of the Lakers were playing All-Star game defense.

They no longer were a top-three defense, having sunk deep into the NBA’s standings after the opening two weeks. But Silas might be on to something the way the Lakers have played recently, a trend that continued in their best defensive effort of the young year.

Following up a fourth quarter in which they held Cleveland to 16 points, the Lakers (4-3) limited the Rockets to 85 points, the fewest they’ve allowed since Nov. 8, 2019.

“A huge growth on the defensive side of the ball,” coach Frank Vogel said.

Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Michael Balzary, known professionally as Flea, cheers after a Lakers basket.
Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Michael Balzary, known professionally as Flea, cheers after a Lakers basket as guard Russell Westbrook transitions to defense against the Rockets on Sunday.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)
Lakers forward LeBron James drives to the basket in front of Houston Rockets guard Kevin Porter Jr. in the first half.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

The Rockets made just five of 18 shots in the first quarter, scoring 15 points while turning it over eight times. And the Lakers, playing with a smaller lineup, enjoyed the extra space to hit six threes in the quarter, including three from Anthony, who finished five for eight from deep in scoring a team-high 23 points.

The Lakers continued to pressure Houston in the second, the Rockets shooting 30% in the quarter as they scored 20 points. In the third, the Lakers held them to 19.

In his pregame praise for the Lakers, Silas seemed sure that it would be only a matter of time until the Lakers started looking like the Lakers.

That happened Sunday.

James, who dressed up as movie monster Freddy Krueger on Saturday night, terrorized Houston with a two-way performance that had him looking as dominant as ever.

On one end, he was turning defenders inside out and throwing down vicious, two-handed reverse slams. On the other, he was bodying up players like Jae’Sean Tate, poking the ball loose before turning to the crowd and signaling “out” like an umpire.

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Oct. 30, 2021

Kent Bazemore swished a jumper on the other end before James could even cross midcourt.

That the Lakers struggled from the field was almost immaterial given the way they defended and took care of the basketball.

For Vogel, it means another positive film session, like the one he was able to share after the Lakers shut down Cleveland late.

“It’s great to be able to positively reinforce rather than show corrections always,” Vogel said before the game. “There was a lot of that on tape the other day.”

The Lakers got off to a strong start with a new starting five against the Rockets, turning to veteran Avery Bradley in a lineup that shifted Davis to starting center for the first time this season.

The move came with Jordan moving to the second unit after Howard was a late scratch because of sore neck.

And while the blowout was on early, a lot like it was last week in Oklahoma City, the team stayed engaged and fought off every mini Rockets run that came in the second half.

Even a fourth-quarter flurry that cut a 28-point deficit by more than half came without any significant threat.

The performance opened a three-game homestand in which the Lakers will host the Thunder after two with Houston, a golden chance to continue to build momentum after opening the season with back-to-back losses and a handful of lackluster defensive efforts.

During their win against Cleveland, Vogel pointed to a number of discussions that he classified as “spirited” — certainly code for more colorful language — regarding the team’s defensive execution.

Whatever was said worked — and maybe that’s what Silas saw that made him deathly afraid. And any other coach who decides to study what the Lakers’ defense looked like Sunday might end up terrified too.