The Los Angeles Lakers are now 0-for-2 in Game 1's this postseason. After losing their opener against the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round, they got whacked by the Houston Rockets Friday, 112-97, to fall behind 1-0 in the series. The Lakers will have to hope that they can right the ship just as they did against Portland, but the Rockets are a far more dangerous opponent. Their 3-point heavy style and small-ball defense is a scary matchup for a Laker team that has played big all season. The Lakers had practically no space to work with offensively in this one, and it showed.
The Rockets, meanwhile, looked much closer to their typical selves in Game 1. They made 14 3-pointers and 20 free throws in scoring at will, and what became clear as the game progressed was how thoroughly they managed to control the terms of engagement. This series will be played on their terms. The Lakers can adapt, or they can exit the bubble. Here are the biggest takeaways from Houston's Game 1 victory.
So much for size
The one advantage the Lakers were supposed to have in this series was their size. Even if they got outshot from the 3-point line and the charity stripe, lost the turnover battle and couldn't switch defensively, their big men were supposed to at least give them guaranteed edges in rebounding, rim-protection and paint scoring.
Well, the Lakers and Rockets tied with 41 rebounds apiece. The Rockets scored 42 points in the paint while the Lakers scored 40. Big men have no utility if they can't help their team in those specific areas, and they come with enormous drawbacks everywhere else. The Lakers had no space to drive to the basket. Their spacing was completely and utterly compromised as LeBron James and Anthony Davis scored only 45 combined points, many of which came on jumpers. The Laker centers struggled as the Rockets forced them onto the perimeter defensively.
If the Lakers aren't going to win in the areas playing big men dictates they should win, then they can't play big men at all. Davis is an exception, but Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee aren't. Neither provided much of anything in Game 1, and it showed as the Lakers struggled across the board.
There's no getting around it: James Harden was bad offensively in Game 7 against the Thunder. He was bad at the end of Game 6 as well. He's had any number of extremely disappointing playoff moments throughout his career. But he was great in Game 1, scoring 36 points on 60 percent shooting, and he's probably going to be great throughout this series based on the matchup.
Danny Green is too slow at the age of 33 to defend him one on one. Alex Caruso, who thrived against the smaller Blazer guards in the first round, isn't big enough to hold up physically. Unsurprisingly, he racked up five fouls in this game. The only Laker good enough at the point of attack to bother Harden, Avery Bradley, is at home right now.
That isn't to say the Lakers have bad defensive guards. Most of the ones they play are good, and at times great. But Luguentz Dort just played one of the best defensive series in recent NBA memory against Harden. The mere fact that Dort isn't on Harden seems to have unlocked him offensively. He can breathe again. That's trouble for the Lakers.
Rondo is cooked
Rajon Rondo has been the worst Laker rotation player all year. They were 8.1 points per 100 possessions better with him on the bench before the hiatus, and after missing all of the seeding games and the first round, he clearly isn't in playoff shape. The Rockets destroyed him defensively. Their ball-handlers had no trouble whatsoever driving past him. He was just as bad on offense. Despite his 2-of-5 mark on 3-pointers, he was one of the biggest reasons the Lakers couldn't attack the basket. The Rockets hardly even pretended to guard him from behind the arc. Throw in four turnovers, most of which were self-inflicted, and the verdict is in: Rondo is no longer a playoff-caliber player.
But both LeBron James and Anthony Davis love him. Vogel has repeatedly stood behind him despite every statistical metric telling him not to. The Lakers already trail in this series. They can't afford to waste minutes on the wrong players anymore. But will they have the intestinal fortitude to bench a possible Hall-of-Famer? We'll find out in Game 2.