There is no shortage of schematic battles at play as the Rockets face the Lakers in the second round of the Western Conference playoffs, with Houston's small-ball experiment put to the test like never before against Los Angeles. Yet as Game 3 proved, the series will likely be decided by each team's superstar duo. Los Angeles's leading men were downright unstoppable on Tuesday night.
LeBron James and Anthony Davis combined for 62 points on 50% from the field in Tuesday's 112-102 win, punishing the Rockets in the paint throughout the evening. It wasn't just the stat lines of Los Angeles' stars that hurt the Rockets in Game 3. It was their sheer physical impact. James converted seven dunks and layups at the rim. He swatted four shots, including a pair via the chase-down variety. James was quieted in Game 1 as he attempted to parse Houston's unique defense. There was no pondering on Thursday. James ran roughshod over the Rockets, giving the Lakers a 2–1 series lead.
"They're a long team and we know that," Rockets guard James Harden said postgame. "We can't play into their strength and let them do what they do. We can't slow the pace, let them play at the rim like they did in the second half."
James was by no means a one-man band despite his superb performance on Tuesday. Anthony Davis dominated the second half after a quiet first two quarters, finishing the night with 26 points and 15 rebounds. Perhaps Houston can survive with both James and Davis turning in impressive performances. But Los Angeles' dynamic duo can't become a Big 3. Rajon Rondo formed a true trio on Tuesday.
Rondo led all bench players with 21 points, adding three triples as the Rockets defense continued to sag into the paint. We've seen Rondo return to form in previous postseasons, yet his 2019-20 was truly abysmal. Rondo's championship pedigree unexpectedly shined through in Game 3, extending the Lakers' lead in crucial minutes with James on the bench.
"LeBron and [Davis] are going to get their points, but it's the other guys we have to control," Harden said. "Last night it was Markieff Morris. Tonight it was Rondo."
The Rockets' superstars held up their end of the bargain as James and Davis torched their defense. Harden went toe-to-toe with the three-time champion throughout the first three quarters, and Westbrook turned in an efficient 30 points on 13-24 shooting. But Houston's fears entering the series have become a reality.
Los Angeles' supersized defense is wreaking havoc, Davis is living above the rim and James is asserting himself as the best player on the planet. There is still a blueprint for the Rockets to win the series, though even that may not be enough. James has made plenty of teams look overmatched in his 17-year career. The Rockets were yet another victim on Tuesday night.