The Los Angeles Lakers have taken complete control of their second-round series with the Houston Rockets. Early on Thursday evening, they held on in Game 4, winning 110-100 for their third straight win in the series. They're now up 3-1, and can close things out in Game 5 on Saturday.
Anthony Davis went for 29 points and 12 rebounds, while LeBron James finished with 16 points, 15 rebounds and nine assists for a near triple-double. But the main story in this game was the Lakers' effort on the defensive end. They held the Rockets to 43.1 percent shooting, and forced 16 turnovers. And those numbers only look that good because of Houston's last-gasp effort in the final few minutes.
Houston was awful for much of the game, trailing by as much as 23 points, and giving less-than-stellar effort. In the last few minutes, however, they found some life, and made an incredible comeback to cut the deficit to five points. It turned out to be a classic case of too-little-too-late, however. Russell Westbrook led the team in scoring with 25 points, while James Harden had 21, but shot 2 of 11 from the field.
Here are some key takeaways from the game:
Lakers dominate defensively
The Lakers were one of the best defensive teams in the league in the regular season, and they've been showcasing that talent in this series. In Game 4, they put together one of their strongest efforts on that side of the ball in the entire postseason. Even including the last few minutes, when they kind of stopped trying and allowed the Rockets to surge back into the game, the Lakers held Houston to 43.1 percent shooting, and forced 16 turnovers.
Specifically, they did a terrific job running the Rockets' shooters off the 3-point line, then meeting them at the rim. Though the Rockets shot a strong 42.4 percent from 3-point land, they only attempted 33 of them. That might be a good amount for many teams, but not the Rockets. Houston's offense is predicated on launching 3s at a record-setting clip, and the Lakers mucked things up by preventing those looks.
When the Rockets drove off those closeouts, the Lakers protected the rim well, despite playing small the whole game. Houston was 9 of 16 at the rim for the game, and 12 of 28 in the paint. Here's a perfect example from early in the third quarter, where Anthony Davis gets switched onto Eric Gordon, jumps out to the perimeter, then recovers and swats the layup away.
Too little, too late from Rockets
Already trailing 2-1 in the series, the Rockets' season was essentially on the line in Game 4. And yet, they came out with the urgency of a late-January matchup against a team headed to the lottery. There wasn't enough effort on both ends of the floor, and they were simply being outworked by the Lakers.
Through the first three quarters, the Rockets didn't have a single second-chance point, nor a single fast-break point. In doing so, they became the first team to get shut out in both of those categories through three quarters in any playoff game since the league started tracking play-by-play data in 1997.
Whatever the reason -- likely fatigue from a short rotation playing so many minutes in a taxing system -- they didn't have the type of energy you need to win a playoff game. And then, the last few minutes happened. The Lakers started relaxing, and the Rockets ramped things all the way up.
They were hitting 3s, getting to the free throw line and forcing turnovers. After Harden got to the line for two free throws with a minute to play, they had a 23-point deficit down to five. They never got any closer, though, running out of time to complete the comeback. On the one hand it was nice to see them finally wake up, but at the same time you have to wonder why it took so long in a playoff game that meant so much.
So close to the matchup we all want
After all of the player movement in the summer of 2019, the Lakers and Clippers were immediately slotted in as title favorites, and the two best teams in the Western Conference. Everyone just sort of assumed that they would meet in the Western Conference finals, and now, more than a year later, we're on the verge of that happening.
The Clippers were already up 3-1 over the Nuggets thanks to their Game 4 win on Wednesday night. Now, thanks to a Game 4 win of their own on Thursday, the Lakers have matched them with a 3-1 lead over the Rockets. Each team needs just one more win to advance and give us the series we were all waiting for.
Beyond the anticipation, this will also be a historic matchup. It will be the first time the Lakers and Clippers have ever met in the playoffs, and will be the Clippers' first trip to the conference finals in franchise history. It doesn't get better than that.