Sunday night in Game 2 of the Western Conference semi-finals, the Los Angeles Lakers defended well but not consistently. They got out in transition and attacked the rim, but not consistently. The Rockets launched three balls but did not make them consistently (well, Russell Westbrook was consistent, but not in a good way).
In the end, it was LeBron and Davis combining for 62 points that pushed the Lakers past a Houston Rockets team that made 10 more threes. Los Angeles won 117-109, tying the series at 1-1. Game 3 is Tuesday night.
Here are the three big takeaways from Game 2:
1) Los Angeles was running in transition again.
Los Angeles and its veteran-laden roster may not look like a fast break threat on paper, but no team added more points per possession through transition than the Lakers this season.
After a stagnant Game 1, the Lakers were off and running again in Game 2, with 16 fast-break points in the first half alone, plus they had some key ones late when Los Angeles pulled away for the win. The defense forcing six steals in the first half led to a lot of transition opportunities for Los Angeles.
When the Lakers are running they are attacking, and that carries over to their halfcourt offense. That’s what Davis was doing. He was getting to the rim, facing up and at least getting into the lane, then shooting over PJ Tucker or any undersized defender Houston threw at him.
The Lakers went with a lot of Davis at the five in this game, as an injured JaVale McGee (ankle injury) played only eight minutes, and Dwight Howard never touched the court. That was hit or miss for the Lakers as Davis was actually -7 for the game (there’s a lot of noise in that statistic, but you get the idea). With Davis and LeBron attacking, the rest of the Lakers were moving into open spaces and the Laker offense had a lot of movement and flow.
Until the third quarter. At that point the Lakers got stagnant, it made them easier to defend, and suddenly it was Houston getting the ball up the court quickly and exploiting mismatches. The Rockets put up a 41 spot in the third and entered the fourth with a two-point lead.
Starting midway through the fourth, the Lakers started defending well enough to get stops (more on that in a second) which allowed them to get out and run. At the end of the fourth the Lakers needed to get a few buckets from the halfcourt, but that’s why it’s good to have LeBron James on your team. He stuck the dagger in Houston late.
“We’re at our best when he’s in attack mode,” Laker coach Frank Vogel said postgame.
It also helped the Lakers got the full playoff Rajon Rondo game. He played well on both ends (even if he was 1-of-5 from three and shouldn’t take those). Rondo was +28 for the night to lead all players.
The Lakers need to carry that running over to Game 3, but transition starts on the defensive end and getting stops. This leads us to….
2) The Lakers defended well. For about half the game.
If the Lakers are going to beat the Rockets and advance, it will be with their defense — L.A. need stops and turnovers to allow it to get out and run. The Lakers need those easy, high-efficiency transition buckets because Houston is a pretty good halfcourt defensive team (in the bubble, anyway), and if the Lakers slow the game down and try to pound it inside for two-point baskets they will lose the math game as the Rockets hit threes.
The Lakers got that defense… for about half the game on Sunday. They did in the first and fourth quarters. The second and third were a bit rough.
When they were on, the Lakers were sharp with their rotations and closeouts, but they were smart about all of it. They weren’t closing out on Russell Westbrook. When the Lakers doubled James Harden they anticipated the release valve pass and were in the way.
When the Lakers got in trouble is when they didn’t rotate quickly and they left shooters open (even LeBron did that a couple of times), or when they were passive with the doubles on Harden. The Beard eats soft double-teams for lunch and had 27 points on 12 shots in Game 2.
The Lakers did a respectable job on Harden; he’s still going to get his. Houston has another star to worry about.
3) The Rockets may have a Russell Westbrook problem
When the Rockets offense was clicking and they were making runs, Houston had the ball in Harden’s hands and put four shooters around him: Eric Gordon was 6-of-12 from three, P.J. Tucker 4-of-7, Robert Covington 4-of-8.
Russell Westbrook was 4-of-15 overall and 1-of-7 from three. The Rockets have him out there as a shooter at the arc, and the Lakers were treating him like Houston treated Lou Dort last round, daring him to shoot. It was a good strategy. Westbrook described himself postgame as “running around” and owned his mistakes, but they may not be ones he can easily correct.
Westbrook has to sit in critical moments because he kills their spacing. He also needs to play like a pure energy big man — drive hard for layups on offense and rebound like a beast on the other. Be a Montrezl Harrell/Dennis Rodman kind of player, just smaller. If Houston continues to deploy him as a shooter it’s a win for the Lakers.
Houston is not going to leave Game 2 thinking they are in trouble, but there is no margin for error against Los Angeles. Houston can’t have multiple cold-shooting stretches — 2-of-13 from three in the fourth, for example — against the Lakers and win. It’s a make-or-miss league and the Rockets can’t miss like that, they need to make contested threes against a long Lakers’ defense.