We already gave you a recap to the game, but when the Lakers win on opening night as home underdogs against a team with James Harden and a ton of offensive firepower by holding them to 18 4th quarter points — including only 4 points in the final 3 minutes — there is more to say on what happened in the contest.
The NBA never ceases to surprise and, even if you are the staunchest Lakers supporter, I would imagine many thought any close game would simply turn into Harden, as the best player on either team, taking control of the action late to win the game. Instead, the Lakers got stingy defensively and found enough offense to tighten the screws on Houston and win the game.
With that, I have more to say and I hope you want more to read so here are 10 thoughts from last night’s Lakers win over the Rockets:
1. While the Lakers had a Defensive Efficiency of 110.8, I liked the way they competed on that end most of the night. Houston’s offense with James Harden surrounded by three shooters and a big man who dives hard to the rim is going to be a nightmare for every team in the league to stop. They simply space the floor too well and have the ability to punish defenses even when all the rotations are right and on time. But the Lakers tried their best to stick to the game plan and played hard throughout the night. I wish they would have done a bit better job of running Houston’s shooters off the arc early in the game, but that improved in the 2nd half and was actually good in the 4th quarter.
2. Speaking of defense, Nick Young, yes NICK YOUNG, was inserted into the starting lineup for the main purpose of defending James Harden. And, guess what? He played hard and stuck to the plan all night! Was he always successful? No, of course not, he was guarding freaking James Harden. But Nick picked up full court, hustled to deny Harden passes, and generally worked his tail off chasing dude all over the court. Then, when asked to switch, he battled bigs for positioning and mostly did exactly what his job was on each possession. I know folks will look at Young’s minutes played (26), his shot attempts (12), then Harden’s line (murder), and get mad at Nick Young because it’s easy for a lot of people to not like him. But, honestly, do you expect Young to chase around Harden all night and then still shoot the lights out? I do not. Before that game would I expect Young to get a start primarily to play defense and actually end up doing a good job? What do you think? Props to Young.
3. A classic tale of two-halves game for Jordan Clarkson offered quite the whirlwind. Clarkson only played 7 minutes in the 1st half and it was pretty well deserved. It wasn’t that his 1-3 shooting line was that bad, it was that he looked hurried in everything he was doing, wasn’t really moving the ball (or even looking to) offensively, and wasn’t locked in defensively the way he needed to be. Then, in the 2nd half, it all changed. A shot fake, drive to the rim with a sweet double-clutch finish seemed to get him going and it all just kept rolling. After a couple of made threes, 7 FT’s, and an OReb + putback, Clarkson had scored 23 of his team high 25 in the 2nd half. To top it all off in the closing minutes, Clarkson had one the games biggest defensive plays when he poked the ball away from Harden in the open court, allowing D’Angelo Russell the opportunity to dive (get on the floor, young man!) and recover for the steal. In the span of a single game Clarkson went from goat to G.O.A.T. and I couldn’t have been happier for him.
4. If Clarkson was great late, it was Russell who was great early. The Rockets looked quite eager to put the Lakers away in the 1st period, starting out with hot shooting while LA faltered some early. But it was Russell who pulled the team back into it, scoring 12 points and dishing 2 assists in the first frame. It was more than just the stats, though. Because while his shot making put points on the board, it was his confidence and playing to the crowd which brought energy to the building and helped pick the entire team up. We talked in our season preview about Russell becoming a leader for the team and I thought this was a prime example of one way he can do so.
5. If Russell and Clarkson provided the bookends of the sandwich, it was Randle who provided the fillings. His stat line of 18 points (9-11 shooting), 7 rebounds, and 6 assists stands out enough, but you truly had to watch the game to understand how meaningful those numbers were. Early on in the game, I thought Randle looked a bit sluggish, but in reality I think it was more him playing with a certain calm and patience his more forceful style doesn’t always mesh with. Randle still had moments where he played on edge, but those were balanced out with tremendous patience when working the post or in wing isolations. Rarely (if at all) did he force the action or look out of control. It was only fitting that the bucket which sealed the game was Randle working in space against Nene and, in true Randle form, he took him off the dribble, and shot up one of his hanging floaters which caught ever piece of the rim before falling. As the Rockets called timeout Randle ran to the sidelines and looked at the crowd, accepting his cheers. The moment served as another reminder to me that Randle does have some alpha in him and really does enjoy the big moments of games.
6. If you look at Larry Nance’s boxscore — 5 points on 2-5 shooting, 5 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal, 1 block in 23 minutes — I suppose you might be impressed by the diversity of stat box-checking, but the volume of numbers might have you wanting for more. But if you dig into possessions and watch him for long stretches, you again see how valuable he can be to winning games. The way he rotates defensively, how he hedges and recovers, how quickly he makes decisions as a passer, the way he moves into open spaces around the paint offensively…he just has really good feel for where to be on the court. It is really hard to overstate how much these things matter and how important they are to winning possessions.
7. Hey, that Brandon Ingram kid is going to be good. Forget the stats (9 points, 4-6 shooting, 3 rebounds) and watch the tape. Watch how he was able to bother a couple of Harden jumpers with his length, how he got to the elbow late in the clock and hit a fading jumper over good Corey Brewer defense, how he was asked to handle the ball as the backup PG in his first game as a 19 year old rookie and didn’t flinch. We know he needs to get stronger and that he could use a bit tighter of a handle so he can pick up his dribble less and be more confident against pressure defense. But, against Houston — as it has been all preseason — he played with a poise and calm which belies his age.
8. Of the 2-man lineups who shared the floor for more than 20 minutes, the only duo which posted a positive net efficiency rating was Ingram/Nance. In the 21 minutes those two shared the floor, the Lakers had an OEff of 117.6 and a DEff of 102.8. That defensive rating is especially significant when you remember it is a full 8 points better than the team’s rating on the evening. This didn’t have everything to do with their play and there will always be noise in these types of stats, but I think it speaks to the nature of those two players’ games and how they tend to do a lot of little things which don’t always show up in the boxscore but still help the team.
9. It’s hard to know how much of the better execution was because of the Rockets’ poor defense, but there were some encouraging signs from the Lakers’ offense. There were fewer periods of standing around and stagnation than we’d seen towards the end of the preseason. The team did a better job of moving the ball, especially from side to side and in hitting the open man. Again, some of this is because the Rockets didn’t do a great job of sniffing out the Lakers’ actions or obstructing them in making cuts or denying passing lanes. But, in general, I thought the team did a good job of acting out the principles of their sets — especially after the first several minutes. There is still a lot of cleaning up to do and now that the season has started there will not be a ton of practice time (next game is Friday!) to do a whole lot of simulating in a scrimmage environment to fine tune and sharpen. But I liked what I saw overall.
10. I have not mentioned Timofey Mozgov, but he deserves some real praise for how he scored the ball early and how well he worked the glass. When he’s able to get deep post position or get a nice lane on dives, he scores well. Watching him get easy baskets and convert on shots inside 8 feet was such a difference from last season when Hibbert struggled in the same situations. I also loved the assist he gave Randle, passing to him off a short roll after the help defense stepped up on him to deter his lane to the rim. That’s the type of pass he will need to make more often this season, especially if he continues to be able to be an effective diver in P&R’s. That said, there were few possessions where I thought he was a bit too eager to look for his own shot. There was nothing egregious, but he took a fading turnaround jumper with good time still left on the clock after a split-cut action didn’t lead to anything that had me shaking my head some. Again, overall, I thought he did well, but his usage will be something to watch for.