WHO: Rockets 112, Lakers 107
WHAT: The resilient Rockets rolled into Staples Center on Friday and came away with an impressive gritty victory, thanks to stingy defense down the stretch against a Lakers team that had won its last four games. The win was pivotal, as it kept Houston deadlocked with Denver for 7th in the West. The Rockets, at 30-25 overall, are a game and a half behind Memphis for 5th and a half-game behind Dallas for 6th. The Rockets are a game and a half up on Phoenix for 7th and two games up on Utah. It was Houston’s second impressive win on the road. After rallying to beat Chicago on Monday, the Rockets rallied once again and put the clamps on a tough Lakers team, frustrating them in the process. GM Daryl Morey has said the Rockets’ lucky number for a playoff spot is 36 (wins), and Houston is six away with 11 games left in the regular season.
WHAT HAPPENED?: Defense. Defense, defense, defense. From the opening tip, the Rockets did a good job establishing a defensive presence against the Lakers’ bigs, as Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol combined for six first-half turnovers and were never allowed into a comfort zone. The Rockets dug in at Bynum specifically, and controlled the tempo and pace into more their liking. The only problem is, these new-look Lakers with Ramon Sessions at the point now thrive in transition. Before, you’d love it if the poor-shooting Lakers were out running instead of setting up and taking advantage of their size inside. But now with the quicker, faster, wittier Sessions running point instead of Derek Fisher, these Lakers can beat you inside and out, which is why they held a 59-50 halftime lead, thanks largely to 16 fast break points that buoyed 51.3% shooting. That lead grew to 11 early in the third quarter before the Rockets – like they did Monday against the Bulls- dug deeper and found a rhythm, especially offensively. A 23-10 run courtesy of sound offensive execution enabled the Rockets with a 75-73 lead. That improved offensive production limited the Lakers’ chances at fast breaks, which was significant. The Rockets outscored the Lakers 34-22 in the third and led 84-81 into the fourth, and that’s when Bynum – for the second straight game against these Rockets – was ejected about midway through the second half, thrown out less than two minutes into the final period for barking at Houston’s bench following a made jump hook. Inexcusable and shocking, for the same incident to occur twice against the same team in as many games. Either way, like the previous meeting, the game remained tight down the stretch before Chandler Parsons’ clutch 3 from the left corner forced a 104-99 lead with less than two minutes to go. After a Lakers made shot, Goran Dragic – the hero of the game along with Luis Scola, the Rockets’ anchor in the final five minutes of the game – made a scooping layup, and after a Lakers miss, Dragic (26 points, 11 assists, 3 steals after a rough start) made a fast break lay-in for a 108-101 advantage that essentially put the game away for good.
DEFENSIVE STAND: The Lakers scored 59 points on 51% shooting, with 16 fast break points, in the first half. In the second half, the Rockets were simply phenomenal defensively, holding L.A. to 48 points on 35.6% shooting, including just 30.8% (8-for-26) in the fourth quarter. But the big story in this man’s eyes was the fast-break opportunities. The Lakers managed just four fast-break points in the second half, all within a short span in the final minutes of the third quarter, and without Bynum available for the final 11 minutes of the game, were forced to a halfcourt game in which the Rockets excelled in defensively, with the guards doing a great job helping their bigs and with the Lakers being given nothing easy in the paint. That’s what happens (limiting transition opportunities) when you make your shots, and Houston did that in the second half. The Rockets shot 42.6% in the first half, but nipped the nets for 55.9% in the second. From the third quarter on, the Rockets’ execution on both ends of the floor was masterful.
ROCKETS’ BIGS COME UP BIG: As expected, the Lakers’ bigs of Pau Gasol and Bynum (combining for 34 points, 17 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 blocks) were a load to handle. But, the Rockets’ trio of Scola (25 points, 4 rebounds, 2 steals, 10-17 shooting), Marcus Camby (12 points, 11 rebounds, 2 blocks) and Samuel Dalembert (12 points, 6 rebounds) were far from shabby. Scola abused the Lakers when it mattered. With L.A. leading 93-91 with 4:56 left in the game, Scola scored Houston’s next 10 points for a 101-99 lead before Parsons and Dragic took over late. Scola up-and-undered his way with ease through Metta World Peace and Gasol, while Camby and Dalembert took advantage of their open shots and shored up the defense. Dalmbert, particularly, was apparently the final straw for Bynum, whose immaturity was on display once again for no apparent reason other than the fact he doesn’t like to be defended. Shame for him and the Lakers. In 30 minutes, Bynum had 19 points, 7 rebounds and 2 blocks, but credit the Rockets’ guards early and Dalembert’s physical defense for flustering the mentally weak big man, who also had five turnovers.
TOO MANY FREEBIES: I hate to nitpick, but this is a great concern of mine, especially with the playoffs looming: The Rockets allow opponents way too many free throws, and also don’t earn enough of their own. Friday was another example, as the Lakers shot 32-of-36 on free throws to Houston’s 18-of-22. In the first half, it was worse. The Rockets were 2-for-2 on free throws; the Lakers were 16-of-20. I understand this is what happens when you’re primarily a jump-shooting team like Houston, but the Rockets have to do a better job either getting easier points in transition or at the free-throw line. The good news is they made up by knocking down 10-of-17 3s to the Lakers’ 3-for-11, but I don’t expect them to be shooting 58% on triples every night. They have to find a way to attack the rim and get some points on freebies, if nothing else than to also not allow officials to see that the opponent is the only aggressor when it comes to attacking the paint. The Rockets are 13th in the NBA in allowing opponents’ shots at the rim, and just 23rd in percentage of their own shots at the rim. They do have good slashers/attackers who can get to the hoop (Scola at times, Courtney Lee, Dragic, Chandler Parsons), but they need to make a more concerted effort to do so, especially when transition opportunities become few and far between in the playoffs.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN?: It means the Rockets are 3-1 on this brutal stretch against top-notch teams that started with Memphis a week ago. I’m pleased the Rockets won with defense instead of simply outscoring the other team, because sooner or later this team has to show consistently it can lock down opponents when it matters. I like how Dalembert (after not playing in the second half of the last three games) was given more time, especially in the second half, because he is a strong defensive presence and an underrated offensive performer. The Rockets are at Sacramento, which they needed overtime to beat the last time the two teams met, on Sunday, and that will be another test for the Rockets’ bigs. But give the Rockets a lot of credit: They are thriving against physical, defensive-oriented teams like the Grizzlies, Pacers, Bulls and Lakers, and are answering a lot of questions about their toughness. It’s been a pleasant trip so far.