The Houston Rockets picked the worst time for their worst game of the playoffs.
Needing a win to even the series and not fall in a deep 3-1 hole behind the Los Angeles Lakers, the Rockets came out in Game 4 and were flat. Listless. Tired. Disinterested. All of the above. James Harden was asked how the Rockets could come out like that in a game so important to their season.
And Harden left it right there.
While the Rockets went on a too-little-too-late run in the second half of the fourth quarter to cut the lead and only lose by 10, the game was not that close.
The Lakers dominated behind 29 points from Anthony Davis and a LeBron James effort that was one assist shy of a triple-double to win 110-100. Los Angeles now leads the series 3-1 and can close it out in Game 5 on Saturday.
Statistics don’t often tell the story, but in this game they did:
• James Harden took six threes, tied for the second-fewest he has taken all season.
• Russell Westbrook, who has shot 25.8% from three this season, took eight.
• The Rockets got up 33 shots from beyond the arc, their second-lowest number since committing to small-ball (they had just 30 last game). Houston averaged 51 threes against OKC last round.
• Harden was 2-of-11 shooting (but did get to the free-throw line 20 times).
• P.J. Tucker had zero points.
• Houston had just 41 points in the first half (coming off scoring 38 in the second half of Game 3).
• The Lakers had 12 offensive rebounds, meaning they got a second chance on 35.6% of their misses. The Rockets had one.
• The Lakers got to the rim at will, taking 45.5% of their shot attempts within eight feet of the basket.
More disturbing than all those numbers for Houston: The Lakers have run the same basic defense at Harden (especially in the second half) for the last three games, a straight-forward double. Get the ball out of Harden’s hands is the plan. The Rockets have not had an answer. It’s troubling in the big picture for Houston.
The big change in this game was the Lakers finally started “small” with Davis at center and LeBron at the four — no JaVale McGee or Dwight Howard all game. Or, put more accurately, the Lakers started the way they should always line up against the Rockets (and most teams, for that matter).
“We can play big. We can play small. We can play in between,” Davis said after the game.
The Rockets played this game without sixth man Danuel House, who remains under investigation for a possible violation of bubble protocol. He allegedly let a female, who tests players for the coronavirus, into his room (or at least the Rockets’ hotel) at night, when she was not there in her work capacity. He could face a 10-day coronavirus quarantine as punishment. The Rockets likely will not last that long in the bubble.
Houston’s backs are against the wall. Coming back from 3-1 down is not impossible — Denver just did it last round — but it might as well be if a team plays without passion and effort, as the Rockets did Thursday.
“I don’t have an explanation for you,” Westbrook said when asked about the flat game. “There should have been a sense of urgency on everybody’s part.”
“We know we’re in a big hole now, but the next game is the game we’ve got to win,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “We’ll go out and if we lay it on the line like the way we did in the fourth quarter, we’ll be fine.”
Or not. LeBron is 13-0 in his career when his team leads 3-1 in a playoff series.