A battle between two shorthanded teams ended in the Houston Rockets' favor as they took down the Los Angeles Lakers 113-97 on Thursday.
The Rockets hit 21 three-pointers on 57 attempts, while the Lakers went just 2-of-19 from beyond the arc.
James Harden and Ben McLemore each hit five threes. Harden also paced Houston with 39 points, 12 assists and eight rebounds on 11-of-19 shooting.
The 43-25 Rockets are now tied with the Utah Jazz for fourth in the Western Conference. The 51-17 Lakers have already clinched the West's No. 1 seed.
Lakers F Kyle Kuzma: 21 PTS, 5 REB
Lakers F/C Anthony Davis: 17 PTS, 12 REB
Rockets G James Harden: 39 PTS, 12 AST, 8 REB
Rockets G/F Ben McLemore: 20 PTS, 4 REB
Rockets' Defense Takes Center Stage
The Rockets haven't been known for their defensive efforts during the Mike D'Antoni era, with the high-paced, three-point-happy offense symbolizing the team's on-court brand.
However, Houston's defense stood out Thursday, even if it was against a shorthanded Lakers team whose offensive rating is league-worst since the NBA's restart began on July 30, per NBA.com.
Robert Covington and Harden each had three steals, with RoCo adding three blocks. P.J. Tucker tallied a pair of steals, and Danuel House Jr. provided the defensive highlight of the night.
Even Harden got in on the blocking action:
D'Antoni praised Harden's defense after the game, per Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle.
L.A. scored just 41 second-half points, including 18 in the final quarter. Its 2-of-19 three-point showing didn't help, nor did the fact that it was without its floor general in James. Anthony Davis also went just 5-of-8 from the field for a relatively quiet 17 points.
Ultimately, Houston's defense came to play Thursday, begging the question as to whether we can see this effort more often this year and into the playoffs.
Houston is tied for 13th in defensive efficiency, per ESPN.com, although that would be one of the worst marks among playoff teams if the season ended today. All 12 teams ahead of the Rockets have either clinched a playoff berth or are close to doing so.
Harden said after the game, per Ben DuBose of Rockets Wire, that the team would have to rely on its defense to advance far:
We'll see whether that occurs in a few weeks. But for now, Houston is getting work done on both ends as it prepares for the playoffs.
Lakers Offense Sputters Again, But Does It Matter?
The Lakers were without James, Caruso, Rondo and JaVale McGee on Thursday, meaning they were sans the services of the game's GOAT (or GOAT runner-up to Michael Jordan, depending on where you stand) and a few other players who figure to play integral roles within the rotation once the playoffs begin.
Furthermore, players who took the court Thursday (e.g. Quinn Cook, who started) likely won't see the floor much in the postseason.
Plus, L.A. has next to no motivation to go all-out right now considering it has already clinched the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference playoffs. Finishing the seeding games healthy is the primary goal, although establishing some sort of positive momentum or rhythm can't hurt.
The Lakers haven't accomplished the latter feat yet, but they still have three games to get it right before the playoffs. Lakers guard Danny Green recognized that fact after the game, per Harrison Sanford of Inside the Green Room:
Harrison Sanford @HarrisonSanford
Danny Green: "We haven't been great, everybody knows that ... We have to get our pace back, get our legs back under us." He says they're working on improving their chemistry w/ new guys and notes they haven't had as much practice time as they would like. Vogel also noted that.
At the very least, a lack of confidence doesn't appear to be a factor right now, per head coach Frank Vogel's comments (h/t Harrison Faigen of Silver Screen and Roll):
Team reporter Mike Trudell ultimately summed it up best after the game:
These games may count in the final regular-season standings for the Lakers, but they don't matter much otherwise. Their real season begins in a couple of weeks when the playoffs kick off on Monday, Aug. 17.
The Lakers will play the Indiana Pacers on Saturday at 8 p.m. ET. The Rockets will battle the Sacramento Kings on Sunday at 8 p.m.