The Rockets and Lakers traded punches, never showing signs of backing down. The Lakers’ LeBron James was sensational. James Harden answered. Russell Westbrook bounced back. Anthony Davis rolled.
They traded the lead and knockout punches. The Rockets, however, had thrown everything they had at the Lakers. When they had little left with a quarter still to play, the Lakers had reinforcements the Rockets could not handle.
The Lakers turned up their defense during the fourth quarter Tuesday and mixed in a sudden Rondorama, surging to a 12-point lead and taking a 112-102 win at AdventHealth Arena in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., for a 2-1 series lead.
“I thought we did a good job, honestly,” Westbrook said. “They had a stretch where (Rajon) Rondo and (Alex) Caruso hit 3s back-to-back, gave them separation. We had some key turnovers in the fourth. For the most part, we can find some good things out of this game.”
There were plenty of good things. The Rockets just could not make them last, seemingly emptying the tank to be tied after three quarters while the Lakers came in waves.
As often as the Rockets say three is more than two, they saw a different version of that math work against them.
While the Rockets had their big two rolling, the Lakers had three stars, with Rondo alone outscoring the Rockets’ bench, depleted with Danuel House Jr. out for personal reasons.
“I think our legs got a little tired,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “They upped their stuff. Too many 50-50 balls we didn’t get. Too many times we weren’t sharp, we weren’t quick to the ball or quick to a play and it got away from us. And they hit a lot of good, hard shots.”
The stars could not take the win. James finished with 36 points and his four blocked shots in the third quarter set the tone for a defensive effort that would hold the Rockets to 38 second-half points. But James Harden had 33 points with nine rebounds and nine assists.
Anthony Davis had 26 points on 9-of-13 shooting. But Westbrook started fast and finished with 30.
But when the Rockets seemed to tire, Rondo and the Lakers bench swarmed. Rondo scored 12 of his 21 points in the fourth quarter, most to spark the Lakers’ 10-0 charge to begin the quarter. After 29 ties or lead changes and no lead larger than six points in the first quarter, the Lakers had the run the Rockets could not overcome. They were never within less than eight points again.
“We gave up too many offensive rebounds throughout the course of the game,” Harden said. “Then, that fourth quarter, turned the ball over, not getting great shots. And coming down and (giving up) transition points, that was the game right there.”
Much of that, however, seemed to be because it took so much out of them just to keep pace for so long, with the Rockets getting few easy baskets. The Lakers limited the Rockets’ looks from the 3-point line to just 30 3-point attempts, nine fewer than in Game 1 when they took their fewest of the postseason. They also swarmed to the paint.
Generally stuck in the halfcourt, nothing was easy for the Rockets, even in a sensational first half. While Harden and Westbrook were a combined 24 of 47. The rest of the Rockets, however, made just 14 of 34 shots.
“We can’t play into their strengths and the things they love to do,” Harden said. “And that’s halfcourt, slow the pace up, let them get set, let them meet us at the rim, which I think we did, especially in that second half.
“We weren’t in attack mode. They did a good job of trapping and we didn’t make them pay for it.”
The Rockets made 56.8 percent of their shots during the first half, scoring 36 points in the paint. In the second half, they made just 35.1 percent, scoring 14 points in the paint.
By the fourth quarter, James and Davis needed to score just seven points. But Rondo, Caruso and Kyle Kuzma outscored the Rockets, 23-20, with the Rockets not seeming to have enough left to answer. “I think it’s pretty obvious we just ran out of a little steam there, just didn’t make plays like we did,” D’Antoni said. “It’s good to have Russell back in the sense he played really well. We’ll get our rest. It’s two (games) to one. OK, they got this one. Let’s get the next one.”