Rockets: Kevin Porter Jr., Jalen Green, Jae’Sean Tate, Daniel Theis, Christian Wood
Lakers: Russell Westbrook, Kent Bazemore, Avery Bradley, LeBron James, Anthony Davis
Rockets: Danuel House (out); John Wall (out)
Lakers: Dwight Howard (questionable); Wayne Ellington (questionable); Trevor Ariza (out); Talen Horton-Tucker (out); Kendrick Nunn (out)
That’s more like it, huh? Mostly, at least.
In a delightful change of pace, rather than allow a clearly inferior opponent to hang around into the game’s latter stages (or, worse yet, dig themselves a hole), the Lakers took the floor on Sunday night not just certain that they were the better team, but intent on demonstrating that from the jump.
Of course, despite thoroughly dominating the first three quarters – with defense, no less! – the Lakers couldn’t shake the annoying inclination to make evening more interesting than it had any business being. When you lead by as many as 28 and take a 21-point cushion into the fourth quarter, you’d like to win by more than ten points.
Again, on the bright side, for three quarters, we finally saw the type of defensive showing that we’ve been awaiting, with the Rockets failing to top 20 points in any non-garbage time quarter. The effort was fantastic but forcing 25 turnovers, 15 via steal, is not really a sustainable plan. Most NBA teams are not that generous.
It is worth noting that the game would have been even more lopsided had the Lakers not had a brutal shooting night. As a team, the Lakers shot just over 40% from the field, and a horrendous 29% (9-of-31) from 3-point range. LeBron and Anthony Davis combined for just 31 points, on 13-of-36 shooting, and missed all seven of their attempts from distance. Meanwhile, in 49 combined minutes, Avery Bradley and Malik Monk hit just one of eleven shots and contributed two points.
Thankfully, the two new stars, Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony, were on hand to save the day. On the heels of I referred to as a “best-case controlled aggression performance”, Russ was at it again, hitting 9 of 22 shots, two of four 3s, grabbing eight rebounds and dishing out and nine assists, while turning the ball over just twice, en route to a game-high plus-25. Doing it on a night in, night out basis, against good competition is obviously the main challenge going forward, but Russ seems to be calibrating his game to fit what this team needs. And then there’s Melo.
There’s so much to be said about Carmelo Anthony (I’m planning to do so soon). Once again, Melo was the catalyst, with 23 points on 14 shots, and 5-of-8 from behind the arc to take his season 3-point percentage back over 50%. That he’s stepped in and taken on the bench scoring role that he has is not shocking. That he’s done so in the way that he has, in the flow of the offense, as a deadeye release valve, is incredible. It’s probably not fair to expect him to knock down over half his 3s over the long term, but the way that he’s getting his shots and disciplines play on offense seem sustainable.
What was even more impressive was his effort on defense. In his 25 minutes on the floor, Carmelo tied his career high with four blocked shots and two steals. He certainly has his limitations on that end, but he is moving his feet, battling and getting his hands on loose balls. That type of attitude on D, combined with the way he’s playing his pivotal role in the offense is worth getting a little giddy over.
Sunday’s most noteworthy takeaway, and certainly a factor in the improved defensive performance, was, of course, the Lakers’ reconfigured starting lineup. With Dwight Howard sitting out with a sore neck, at long last, Frank Vogel opted to deploy DeAndre Jordan with the second unit, and started Anthony Davis in the middle, with Avery Bradley joining LeBron, Kent Bazemore and Russell Westbrook in the staring five. We can debate whether Bradley is the optimal fifth starter – he was brutal offensively, but did have three steals and a block – but what’s abundantly clear is that another body on the perimeter works to this group’s benefit. Whether the long-run solution at that fifth spot is Bradley, Trevor Ariza, Talen Horton-Tucker, Kendrick Nunn or Austin Reaves, we’ve got our long-awaited proof of concept.
Now, we should probably refrain from reacted too strongly to a strong showing against the NBA’s 26th-ranked offense, which is relying heavily on an experimental point guard in Kevin Porter Jr. who’s still learning the position and struggling with turnovers (he had six on Sunday), and a prized prospect in Jalen Green who’s struggling to find his shot (2-of-8, 0-for-4 from 3, 7 points on Sunday). None the less, you can only play the opponent that’s put in front of you.
There’s been no shortage of frustration in Lakerland these first two weeks. And there are still issues to address, namely rebounding (despite AD’s 13, the Lakers were still out-boarded 55-43 on Sunday) and on defense. Defensively, Sunday’s first three quarters were a building block. The challenge now is to replicate and sustain that focused effort for an entire game.
Tonight, in a literal run-it-back scenario, against an outmatched opponent (and then again on Friday), the Lakers have a golden opportunity to out together a truly dominant performance. Assuming a few more shots fall (it’s unlikely that fewer of them will fall), another committed defensive effort will get the job done.
Where you can watch: 7:30 pm Pacific start time on Spectrum SportsNet.