Russell Westbrook Pours in 41 as Small-Ball Rockets Beat LeBron James, Lakers

Paul KasabianSenior ContributorFebruary 7, 2020

LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 6: Russell Westbrook #0 of the Houston Rockets shoots the ball against the Los Angeles Lakers on February 6, 2020 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2020 NBAE (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
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Russell Westbrook's game-high 41 points propelled the Houston Rockets to a 121-111 road win over the Los Angeles Lakers on Thursday at Staples Center.

Bleacher Report @BleacherReport

Russ hit 20K career points and had a monster game against the Lakers 😤 41 PTS | 8 REB | 5 AST https://t.co/8kOtZKkVQY

Westbrook shot 17-of-28 from the field and added eight rebounds and five assists.

Houston was lights-out from long range, hitting 19 of its 42 three-pointers. Eric Gordon was the team's top player from beyond the arc by hitting five of his eight attempts.

The Rockets scored 30 more points from beyond the arc than the Lakers, who shot 49.5 percent from the field but encountered trouble stopping Houston on the other end.

Anthony Davis had 32 points, 13 rebounds, three blocks and three steals to lead the Lakers against a small-ball Rockets team that started 6'6" P.J. Tucker at center. The Rockets did not play anyone taller than 6'7" Robert Covington.

Los Angeles guard/forward LeBron James was one rebound shy of a triple-double with 18 points, 15 dimes and nine boards.

The 33-18 Rockets won their fourth straight game. The 38-12 Lakers' Western Conference lead over the Denver Nuggets fell to 2.5 games.


Notable Performances

Rockets G Russell Westbrook: 41 PTS, 8 REB, 5 AST

Rockets G James Harden: 14 PTS, 7 AST, 7 REB

Rockets F Robert Covington: 14 PTS, 8 REB, 2 STL, 2 BLK

Lakers F/C Anthony Davis: 32 PTS, 13 REB, 3 STL, 3 BLK

Lakers G/F LeBron James: 18 PTS, 15 AST, 9 REB

Lakers G Danny Green: 15 PTS, 3 AST, 3 STL


Rockets' Small-Ball Strategy Works Again

The Rockets' win on Thursday defied logic.

They started a 6'6" center and didn't feature a player taller than 6'7" in the rotation.

Meanwhile, the Lakers had five players 6'8" and taller in their rotation, with de facto point guard LeBron James standing at 6'9". 

One might have expected the Lakers to dominate the boards, score far more points in the paint and enjoy a comfortable win.

But the Rockets had other ideas.

Somehow, Los Angeles out-rebounded Houston by just one, 38-37.

The points-in-the-paint differential was heavily slanted toward Los Angeles, 62-40, but that didn't matter much considering Houston's three-point prowess, where the Rockets scored 30 more points.

The Rockets also excelled on the fast break with 26 points to the Lakers' 18.

Sure, it helped that the Rockets shot lights-out from three-point range, but the Lakers encountered difficulties adjusting to Houston's lineup, as Brian T. Smith of the Houston Chronicle noted.

Brian T. Smith @ChronBrianSmith

One of #Rockets’ best wins of season. Definitely their most interesting. Westbrook with 41. Lakers were confused by small ball.

The Rockets have gone to a small-ball lineup for four games and have outscored their opponents by an average of 10.25 points for a perfect 4-0 record.

Furthermore, game-high scorer Russell Westbrook is flourishing in this system, with Alykhan Bijani of The Athletic explaining more:

"Russell Westbrook has excelled at 5-out. He was shooting 11 percent better around the rim without Capela in the game. So much space for him to operate, and he's able to use his first step to get past his defenders.

"Once Houston goes 5-out, especially in transition, Lakers bigs are forced to step further out to defend. With bigs around the perimeter, Westbrook and Harden are getting into the paint. If Lakers want to send help, a weak-side defender must leave a shooter. Tough decision."

L.A. eventually went out of its comfort zone to counter the Rockets' small-ball lineup, with ESPN's Tim MacMahon noting a strategical switch:

Tim MacMahon @espn_macmahon

The Lakers adjusted to the Rockets as far as lineups go. JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard have combined to play less than 20 minutes. Anthony Davis is at center in crunch time.

But it was too late for the Western Conference-best Lakers, who became the fourth straight team to fall to the NBA's most uncommon lineup.


Anthony Davis' Dominance Not Enough

On the flip side, Anthony Davis' performance against the Rockets went much like the Monstars' first-half performance against the Tune Squad in Space Jam.

Bleacher Report @BleacherReport

PJ Tucker at center trying to guard AD tonight https://t.co/KuRPKwVOAu

Naturally, the six-time All-Star had little issue doing whatever he wanted against a small lineup that tried its best against the big man but had next to no chance of offering any type of resistance.

Lakers reporter Mike Trudell described one notable first-quarter sequence:

Mike Trudell @LakersReporter

It took the Lakers a few possessions, but soon enough, they started to feed @AntDavis23 for 3 incredibly easy baskets at the rim against Houston’s small linenup. He has 6 straight points, w/an and-1 FT coming, and LAL up 16-13 early.

Easy buckets were common against the Rockets defense, even with a defender in Davis' face:

Los Angeles Lakers @Lakers

Big man goes to work 💼 https://t.co/lPniUY5FPs

Alley-oops also traveled on the path of least resistance:

Los Angeles Lakers @Lakers

📍🆙 https://t.co/cxONVUWzid

Davis easily excelled, but oddly enough, the Rockets defense was still exceptional in defeat.

They in essence traded easy two-point opportunities for three-pointers on the other end en route to a 10-point win. 

Tom Haberstroh @tomhaberstroh

On the last six trips, the Lakers have three dunks along with an alley-oop layup to AD. And Houston took the lead.

The Lakers notably struggled outside the paint, shooting just 9-of-31 from beyond the three-point arc. Outside of Davis, the Lakers combined to shoot a so-so 44.3 percent overall.

The Rockets defense received much postgame praise from numerous analysts:

Dustin McComas @DMcComasOB

#Lakers moved away from what was working 3Q in the paint, but Houston’s urgency on defense was very high to end the 4Q. And then the shotmaking by the new guy, Russ and Gordon was big-time. #Rockets #OneMission

RedNinetyFour @RedNinetyFour

I haven't seen the Rockets defense look this swarming since 2017-2018.

Jonathan Feigen @Jonathan_Feigen

If someone suggests Davis is doing this because Rockets are not tall, they are doing him a disservice. As with that shot over Harden, defense has often been strong on him. He's that good.

The natural question is whether this system is sustainable long-term, but early returns are clearly in Houston's favor.

The addition of Robert Covington as the team's three-and-D specialist only helps Houston pull this strategy off, and the new Rocket excelled Thursday to the tune of 14 points, eight rebounds and a pair of steals and blocks.

Time will tell whether this works out, but at the very least, the Rockets' newfound approach stands as one of the league's most interesting storylines down the regular-season stretch.


What's Next?

The Rockets will visit the Phoenix Suns at Talking Stick Resort Arena on Friday at 9 p.m. ET. The Lakers will head to San Francisco and take on the Golden State Warriors at Chase Center on Saturday at 8:30 p.m.


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