It was assumed the Rockets would be able to score at a considerable clip in their second-round series against the Lakers. Russell Westbrook shined in two regular-season contests vs. Los Angeles in 2019-20, and the Lakers don't have the perimeter personnel to contain James Harden. It was little surprise in Game 1 as Harden and Westbrook combined for 59 points in a double-digit victory. But Houston's defensive effort came as a relative shock.
The Rockets held Los Angeles to just 97 points on Friday night, executing their defensive blueprint to a tee. The Lakers shot just 42% from the field and 29% from three, and those numbers aren't just a product of sample size. The Rockets made each possession tough on the No. 1 seed, fighting valiantly against a pair of supersized weapons. Neither Anthony Davis nor LeBron James controlled the matchup. Los Angeles' role players struggled mightily. It's hard to imagine a better Game 1 for Mike D'Antoni's squad.
"We do a great job of taking a challenge," D'Antoni said postgame. "We have a very unique team that can be different from everyone else. Now is that good enough? We'll see. ...But we can compete."
James remains Los Angeles' catalyst, but Davis provided the clearest challenge entering Game 1. The superstar big man is perhaps the game's most lethal rim-runner, and Houston doesn't have anyone in their rotation who can legitimately challenge his shot. Yet despite Davis' immense size and skill, the Rockets were able to execute an effective game plan on Friday. Houston forced Davis into a steady diet of mid-range jumpers, limiting the former No. 1 pick to just four free-throw attempts. The Rockets threw a slew of different players at Davis, and each held their ground with late help from weak-side defenders. Davis could very well tally multiple 30-point games in the series. But not all points are created equal. If the Rockets force the right kind of shots on Davis, they'll live with the results.
Houston has redefined the meaning of small-ball in recent months, trotting out lineups with 6'5" forward P.J. Tucker at the center spot. Though perhaps small-ball is a bit of a misnomer. The Rockets are stout and sturdy across their roster. No post-up feels like a true mismatch. Houston has the physicality to slow Davis and James, and there's little doubting the toughness of P.J. Tucker and Co. The Rockets' size disadvantage isn't disappearing anytime soon, and Houston appears unconcerned. Maniacal effort can overcome even severe personnel issues. The Rockets proved as such as they stifled the Lakers on Friday.
"You can be 7’0”, but if you don’t have heart it doesn’t matter," Harden said postgame. "If you don’t have dog in you it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter how tall you are if you have heart and you’re a competitor.”