LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Following a six-day layoff after the Los Angeles Lakers made quick work of their first-round opponent, LeBron James said the Houston Rockets’ speed caught his team flat-footed in Friday’s 112-97 Game 1 loss to open up the Western Conference semifinals.
“I think it’s the speed,” James said. “They play with a lot of speed both offensively and defensively. And you can watch it on film and you can see it on film, until you get out there and get a feel for it [you cannot comprehend it]. That’s what we did tonight. We got a feel for their speed, and we should be fully aware of that going into Game 2.”
It was a similar refrain to what James and the Cleveland Cavaliers said several years ago when they trounced through the Eastern Conference playoffs relatively untested, only to be stunned by the speedsters on the Golden State Warriors when the NBA Finals started.
The Rockets’ rapid movement made the biggest dent in the transition game. Houston helped force 17 L.A. turnovers, resulting in 27 points on the other end. The Rockets are now 11-0 this season when they score 25 points or more off turnovers, according to research by ESPN Stats & Info.
“How do you adjust to a team’s speed? You understand that it’s not just about the legs moving, it’s about the hands moving, as well,” said James, who had 20 points but went scoreless in the fourth quarter. “They’re great with their hands. You understand that if you have the turnover you can’t really react, you have to get back, quick twitch. Quick twitch plays because they’re very, extremely fast.”
James compared the Rockets’ roster, headlined by former MVPs Russell Westbrook and James Harden, to the St. Louis Rams of the early 2000s when Kurt Warner would sling the ball to Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt, Marshall Faulk and Az-Zahir Hakim and they would race to the end zone.
“You adjust to that by playing against it,” James said. “It was, ‘OK, we need to play them again.’ There’s no way you can simulate that speed.”
While it was only the opening game of the series, there’s now been a pattern of the Rockets disrupting the Lakers’ rhythm – three of the Lakers’ four games this year with their lowest percentage of passes completed, including the regular season, came against Houston, according to Second Spectrum data.
“They’re a good defensive team, especially since they’ve been here in the bubble. All their guys are like-sized and they’re able to switch everything kind of how Golden State does. Switch everything and then just cover each other,” said Anthony Davis, who led L.A. with 25 points and 14 rebounds. “Our passing has to be a lot better than it was tonight, but we make the right plays and we can make them pay.”
L.A. trailed by six points heading into the fourth quarter when Houston exploited a lineup that Lakers coach Frank Vogel tried out for the first time all season: James, Rajon Rondo, Dwight Howard, Kyle Kuzma and Markieff Morris.
The Rockets went on a 12-3 run against that group in the first two minutes and 57 seconds of the fourth to break the game open.
“Whoever is on the floor, we got to do a better job of executing,” James said. “And EG [Eric Gordon] came in in the fourth quarter and sparked them on the offensive end. Getting to the line. Getting into the paint. Making shots. And we didn’t get any to fall for us. So we got to do a better job of that.”
Gordon (23 points) was one of three Rockets along with Harden (36) and Westbrook (24) to score 20-plus points.
Despite having a size advantage over the Rockets, the Lakers were outscored in the paint 42-40 and the two teams tied on the boards 41-41. Meanwhile, L.A. hoisted up nearly as many 3s (11-for-38) as the Rockets (14-for-39).
Which begged the question: Did L.A. fall into a trap by trying to beat Houston at its own game?
“I don’t think we were falling into their hands,” Davis said. “We were playing our style of basketball.”
Just perhaps not as effectively as the Rockets were playing theirs.