The Rockets can pull out all the schematic stops imaginable against the top-seeded Lakers, but ultimately, their second-round series will be decided by the battle of superstars. And in Game 4, the matchup wasn't exactly close.
Anthony Davis led all scorers with 29 points on Thursday, leading the way as LeBron James quietly fell one assist short of a triple-double. The pair of performances didn't quite mirror Game 3 in terms of the two stars' stat lines, but the general principle remained. James and Davis are too physically imposing for the small-ball Rockets, especially in transition. Letting the Lakers run is asking for a blowout. Houston has learned the hard way in each of the last two games.
The Rockets have to accept at least some degree of production from James and Davis, yet there was hope that Houston's MVPs could match the pair of superstars on the offensive end. Harden led the way with 36 points in Game 1. Westbrook was effective in Game 3. But neither truly delivered on Thursday.
Harden's struggles were the most notable. He tallied 21 points in Houston's Game 4 loss, with 16 of them coming from the foul line. Harden finished the night 2-11 from the field and 1-6 from three, failing to insert himself into the offense for much of the night. This isn't an implicit criticism of Harden. He faced traps and double teams on nearly every non-transition possession, forcing him to consistently find an open man flashing near the foul line. But Houston needs Harden to do more than make the right basketball play. The three-time scoring champion is Houston's catalyst. When he's fazed out, the Rockets freeze. Don't expect anything else but a flurry of traps from Los Angeles in Game 5.
"[Harden] is probably one of the best offensive players we’ve ever seen in this league," James said postgame. "So we're just trying to limit anything we can from him."
It's hard not to feel some sympathy for Harden as the Rockets face a round-two exit for the second straight year. The best scorer of his generation is finding increasingly little room to operate, with traps and double teams thrown his way from every conceivable angle. But the reasoning behind Harden's struggles aren't necessarily pertinent at this point. He and his fellow MVP are now at the brink of elimination, and they have little answers for Los Angeles' frontcourt superstars. The Rockets formed a dynamic duo last July as they anticipated a matchup with the Los Angeles juggernauts. Houston's gamble hasn't gone according to plan of late.