The Los Angeles Lakers have followed a pattern this postseason: lose Game 1, win everything else. That's what happened against the Portland Trail Blazers, as the Lakers lost their opener and swept the rest of the series, and so far, it's what is happening against the Houston Rockets. Houston took Game 1, but after a back-and-forth 117-109 victory, the Lakers tied the series 1-1.
LeBron James and Anthony Davis, held to 45 points in Game 1, combined for 62 efficient ones to go along with 21 rebounds and 13 assists.
The Rockets, meanwhile, couldn't maximize an absolutely incredible shooting night because 22-of-53 shooting outings from 3-point range don't grow on trees, and now they will have to figure out what adjustments are necessary ahead of a crucial Game 3 on Tuesday. They may have thrown the opening punch, but the Lakers absorbed it and retaliated in kind. Here are the most important takeaways from Game 2.
Will the real Russell Westbrook please stand up?
After three underwhelming games against Oklahoma City and a pedestrian opener against the Lakers, Russell Westbrook dropped a massive dud in Game 2 that he could regret for the rest of the series. The former MVP shot only 4-of-15 from the field, and while his 13 rebounds were crucial against the bigger Lakers, he was such a non-factor in half-court offense and defense that Houston chose not to play him for parts of the fourth quarter. Instead, the focus was on surrounding James Harden with shooting.
Some of this is health. He's still dealing with the quad issue that kept him out of the first four games against the Thunder. But a lot of it boils down to the basic issues Westbrook has always had in the playoffs. The Lakers sagged off him all night, begging him to take and miss jumpers. He acquiesced. When he drove to the basket, he met a sea of Lakers in the paint. They trusted him to make bad decisions, and he did with seven turnovers.
Westbrook has a function in this series and on this team. But his flaws are being magnified by the caliber of opponent and the specificity of playoff game-plans. Houston's best bet at this point might just be admitting that he isn't a 30-minute per-game player in this matchup, and that their best chance at generating late-game offense would be to space the floor as much as possible for Harden. All Houston really needs out of Westbrook is ball-handling during Harden's rests and the occasional fast-break. He can provide that in 20-25 minutes without hurting the Rockets as much elsewhere. Until he proves that he is healthy enough to be a superstar again, that might be his best use in this matchup.
The Lakers fell for their own trap, but eventually entered the zone
When smart teams have trapped against Houston this season, they've done so with purpose. They usually use Russell Westbrook's man as the doubler on James Harden when he crosses half-court. The logic is sound. Westbrook is a non-shooter. It's a manageable 4-on-3 with the proper rotations.
The Lakers went way too far in trapping themselves. They didn't just trap off of Westbrook's man, they trapped off of shooters, and they didn't just trap Harden, they trapped Eric Gordon. Their philosophy for most of this game was, essentially to just double and hope Houston's shooters didn't beat them, but this is Houston, not some run-of-the-mill regular-season opponent. The Rockets are going to take every open shot the Lakers offer them, and they hit an incredible 20 shots from behind the arc in the first three quarters alone.
But in the fourth quarter? They found the right gimmick. A 1-2-2 zone allowed them to defend Harden without compromising the integrity of their defense in the corners. Houston scored only 17 points in the fourth quarter, but more importantly, the Rockets only made two threes. Some of that was variance, but some of that was a better scheme. Houston will have a response for Game 3, but it's another weapon for the Lakers to deploy on defense. They'll need to throw several different looks at Harden, and defend him straight up a bit. There isn't one answer to a player like him unless you have an All-Defense-caliber guard. Now the Lakers have a better idea of what works, and more importantly, what doesn't.
Houston will not budge
The Rockets committed to the math against Oklahoma City. No matter how many shots Lu Dort made, or didn't make, they weren't going to guard him from behind the arc. They trusted that over a long enough sample, the benefits of playing 5-on-4 defensively, especially in the paint, would outweigh whatever shots a bad shooter made.
That is what the Rockets are doing to a number of Lakers. Rajon Rondo is the most egregious, but even after Markieff Morris made four threes in a row in the first quarter, the Rockets didn't relent. They are committed to keeping LeBron James and Anthony Davis out of the paint at all costs. The Lakers survived in this game because of unrealistic shooting variance. Morris isn't making four in a row again.
Now, to their credit, both Rondo and Morris did a number of things well in this game. Rondo, derided all year for his plus-minus numbers, was plus-28 in this matchup. His playmaking on both ends of the floor mattered, and Morris' toughness inside was crucial at the rim. But somehow, they are going to have to find a balance between spacing, playmaking and defense, because right now, the Lakers are surviving on both ends by the skin of their teeth.
Anthony Davis is making Frank Vogel's life easier
The great debate after Game 1 was whether the Lakers should stay big or go small. When they initially started JaVale McGee, it appeared as if they decided on bully ball. But McGee played only eight minutes, and Dwight Howard didn't see the floor. With McGee suffering an ankle injury in the second half, the Lakers appear to be all in on small-ball. But with Anthony Davis on the floor, they still get most of the benefits of playing big.
Davis underwhelmed in Game 1, and even with 24 center minutes, the Lakers failed to out-rebound Houston (the margin was 41-41), and the Rockets outscored them in the paint (42-40). In Game 2, with 16 fewer minutes shared with a true center, the Lakers pulled in six more rebounds than the Rockets (41-35), but more importantly, they doubled Houston's points in the paint (54-26). Davis was at the heart of that in Game 2. P.J. Tucker kept him out of the restricted area for most of Game 1. In Game 2, the far bigger Davis owned the area around the basket on both ends.
This is the player that the Lakers need Davis to be. If he plays like a forward, relying largely on his jumper and playing soft inside, the Lakers are not a championship team. But when he dominates inside while also mixing in his forward skills? That's when the Lakers are special. They got the best version of Davis in Game 2, and in this matchup, we should see plenty more of him.
LeBron James keeps making playoff history
After 17 seasons, nine trips to the NBA Finals and three championships -- in a era where every playoff round is best-of-seven -- it's not a surprise that LeBron is the NBA's career playoff leader in points, field goals made, free throws made and steals, in addition to ranking third in assists. In Game 2 against the Rockets, James added to his list of career postseason accomplishments moving past former Miami teammate Ray Allen into second on the playoff 3-pointers list (386), and tying Derek Fisher for the most playoff wins in NBA history (161).
Although James is almost certain to stand alone with the most playoff wins when he retires, he'll have a tougher time with the 3-pointers record, which is held by Stephen Curry, who is three years younger than James and has made 470 playoff threes in less than half as many playoff games than James.