The Lakers have now played more than half of their eight allotted seeding games, and still, the offense can't seem to put it all together. They were held below 100 points for the third time in five tries Thursday, falling 113-97 to the Houston Rockets in a game missing two of its biggest stars: LeBron James and Russell Westbrook. The Rockets were able to adapt to the absence of their superstar. The Lakers were not.
Houston, led by James Harden with 39 points, made 21 3-pointers and took advantage of the space Westbrook's absence created to drive more freely to the lane. The Lakers, meanwhile, sputtered as only Anthony Davis and Kyle Kuzma managed to generate much offense. They combined for 38 points in a disappointing performance. The Lakers have the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference clinched, but they are running out of time to fix things before the games start to count again. Shoot like they have recently and their potential championship run will end before it begins. Here are the most important takeaways from tonight's game.
1. The Lakers' offensive woes are systemic
The dormant Laker offense can blame some of its recent woes on execution, yes. Eventually, they are going to start making a normal percentage of their 3-pointers. But tonight's loss proved something that has been simmering under the surface all season. The problem isn't how many 3-pointers the Lakers make. It's how many they take. They are 22nd in the NBA in 3-point attempts per game this season, and against Houston, they attempted fewer 3s (19) than the Rockets made (21).
This happened despite the Lakers starting a small-ball unit without JaVale McGee and devoting only 20 minutes to the center position (all Dwight Howard). The Lakers planned to shoot tonight. They just didn't do it. Having LeBron back will help. He's their primary shot-creator and pick-and-roll ball-handler. But that won't matter if the Lakers continue to pick such bad shots. Nobody is saying they have to match Houston's shot-selection, but Davis should not be settling for turnaround jumpers against a team whose "center" is 6-5.
2. Mike D'Antoni stays on brand
Mike D'Antoni is known for his short rotations, but if ever there was a time to let some line out and test the back of his bench, it would have been this game. He didn't have Russell Westbrook, his opponent was missing several key players, and with the No. 1 seed locked up, they wouldn't have too much to worry about if different lineup combinations failed. Yet D'Antoni stuck to his guns and played only eight players. Michael Frazier was the only newcomer, replacing Westbrook. Why even sign players like DeMarre Carroll and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute if you don't plan to at least test them out in the seeding games? That's a decision that could come back to haunt him in the playoffs if he happens to need one of his bigger wings.
3. Don't expect much rest for the Lakers in their final three games
With LeBron James and Alex Caruso out, the Lakers had to come into this game expecting a loss. Those expectations were met on the floor. The Rockets led pretty much wire-to-wire and by double-digits most of the way. Yet, Anthony Davis still played 30 minutes despite this game being the second half of a back-to-back. He remained in the game deep into the third quarter despite the Lakers having almost no chance to win the game... and having no incentive to do so anyway.
Vogel played with fire in that sense. He needs to get his players prepared for the postseason, yes, but caution is a priority with the No. 1 seed locked up. Losing Davis now would be unforgivable.