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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
Easy buckets were common against the Rockets defense, even with a defender in Davis' face:
Alley-oops also traveled on the path of least resistance:
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.
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:
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.
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.