Turns out, the Los Angeles Lakers don't need LeBron James and Anthony Davis to beat the NBA's worst team.
They just needed Kyle Kuzma to play the role of hero with a game-winning layup with 6.9 seconds remaining.
The Purple and Gold extended their winning streak to three with a 124-122 victory over the Houston Rockets in Wednesday's Western Conference showdown at Staples Center. Talen Horton-Tucker, Andre Drummond and Kuzma led the way for the shorthanded Lakers, who improved to 40-30 overall as they fight to avoid the play-in tournament.
Impressive showings from Armoni Brooks and Kelly Olynyk weren't enough for the Rockets, who are playing out the string and fell to 16-54 with their seventh straight loss.
Houston could have won it at the end, but Olynyk turned it over in the final seconds after Kuzma's shot.
Notable Player Stats
- Talen Horton-Tucker, G, LAL: 23 PTS, 10 AST, 2 STL
- Kyle Kuzma, F, LAL: 19 PTS, 10 REB, 7 AST
- Andre Drummond, C, LAL: 20 PTS, 10 REB
- Kelly Olynyk, F, HOU: 24 PTS, 8 AST, 6 REB, 2 STL
- Armoni Brooks, G, HOU: 24 PTS, 6 REB
- Kenyon Martin Jr., F, HOU: 20 PTS, 10 REB, 3 BLK
Balanced Attack Helps Lakers Hold Off Houston's Charge
Injuries are never ideal, but the timing for the Lakers could not have been much worse.
They entered play one game behind the Dallas Mavericks and Portland Trail Blazers in the race to avoid the Western Conference play-in tournament. Not only were they without James and Davis as they attempted to make up that ground, Dennis Schroder and Alex Caruso were also sidelined.
Fortunately for the defending champions, converting on the offensive end wasn't a problem against Houston's 27th-ranked defense.
Horton-Tucker, fresh off his game-winning shot against the New York Knicks, picked up where he left off and spearheaded the early effort by attacking the basket, throwing down a dunk and facilitating when defenders collapsed. Drummond dominated the paint in the third quarter, and the combination of Kuzma, Markieff Morris and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope provided secondary scoring.
Still, the Lakers failed to create any meaningful separation because of their defensive woes with the Rockets pouring in 43 points in the third quarter alone.
Frankly, Los Angeles needed a spark alongside Horton-Tucker if it was going to hold off the undermanned Rockets, and Montrezl Harrell and Kuzma provided just that. The pair scored 15 straight points for the home team in the fourth quarter, the last two of which ended Houston's 9-0 run and gave the Lakers the lead back for good.
The defensive effort was ugly at times, but seven players in double figures was just what the Purple and Gold needed without their two stars.
Shorthanded Rockets Put Up Valiant Fight
There's nothing left to do for the Rockets this season but develop younger players and play the role of spoilers.
That figured to be more difficult Wednesday with so many players sidelined, including rising star Christian Wood. Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle noted the Rockets took the floor with the minimum number of eight available players, and that total included two two-way players and two hardship exemption players on 10-day contracts.
It wasn't exactly a formula for a playoff-altering upset, although Brooks and Cameron Oliver kept the shorthanded Rockets within striking distance in the early going.
The both found their shooting stroke, while Brooks also got into the lane and led all scorers with 15 at halftime. Olynyk then did his part in the third quarter by torching the Lakers for 16 points behind three triples and an ability to get to the free-throw line.
Throw in Jae'Sean Tate and Kenyon Martin Jr. providing secondary scoring and contributing on the glass, and Houston was ready for a battle even without much firepower.
It was a credit to the available players that the Rockets even had a chance at the end of the game, and they nearly capitalized when Martin and Tate hit back-to-back threes and Olynyk put them ahead with two free throws.
Unfortunately for the visitors, they were unable to get the key last defensive stop. But they still put up quite the fight with limited options on the floor.
The Rockets host the L.A. Clippers on Friday, while the Lakers are at the Indiana Pacers on Saturday.