The Houston Rockets opened their Western Conference second-round playoff series with a 112-97 win over the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday at ESPN's Wide World of Sports Complex near Orlando, Florida.
A 14-0 run in the beginning of the fourth quarter propelled the Rockets to a 101-82 edge en route to victory. L.A. went 4:12 without scoring during that span and never came closer than 13 points down the stretch.
Rockets guard James Harden led all scorers with 36 points on 12-of-20 shooting (3-of-6 from three-point range).
The Rockets broke the Lakers' four-game winning streak in the process. L.A. had beaten the Portland Trail Blazers in four straight after dropping Game 1 of their first-round playoff series.
Rockets G James Harden: 36 points, 5 assists, 2 steals
Rockets G Russell Westbrook: 24 points, 9 rebounds, 6 assists
Rockets G Eric Gordon: 23 points, 3 rebounds
Lakers G/F LeBron James: 20 points, 8 rebounds, 7 assists
Lakers F/C Anthony Davis: 25 points, 14 rebounds, 3 steals, 3 blocks
Lakers G Alex Caruso: 14 points, 4 assists
Rockets' Defense Continues to Shine
The Rockets opened the seeding-game portion of the NBA schedule by allowing 149 points in an overtime game against the Dallas Mavericks, with four Mavs combining for 123 of those points.
It didn't matter as Houston scored 153 in a four-point victory, but defense largely hasn't been a strong suit for Houston this year with the team allowing the 23rd most points per game and ranking a mediocre 14th in defensive rating among all 30 NBA franchises.
Their defense turned up a notch in the playoffs en route to outscoring the Oklahoma City Thunder by 28 points in Games 1 and 2 of the first round, but it fell apart in Game 3 and 4 in which they allowed 118.0 points on average.
However, Houston's defense has been largely on point ever since. The Rockets gave up just 80 points in a 34-point victory in Game 5 and came up with huge defensive plays in the final seconds of their 104-102 Game 7 win over OKC on Wednesday.
That defensive momentum has clearly rolled over into the Lakers series, as all players not named James or Davis shot just 34.6 percent from the field. The Rockets had 13 steals and held L.A. to just 28.9 percent shooting from three-point range.
L.A. scored 42 points in the second half, including 18 in a fourth quarter that saw the starters hit the bench early.
We'll see if the Rockets can continue this defensive trend throughout the series. They accomplished a similar feat during the seeding games against Houston, earning a 113-97 win.
They'll have to win three more games to advance to the Western Conference Finals, but strong defensive efforts might catapult the Rockets to an upset.
Houston's Supporting Cast Edge Dooms Lakers
The Lakers' supporting cast has not featured a consistent third star in the lineup alongside James and Davis this season, or even one person who has consistently outproduced the rest of his teammates and eased the burden on the two superstars on a regular basis.
That hasn't mattered for much of the season, though. The Lakers cruised to the Western Conference's No. 1 seed and beat the Portland Trail Blazers in five games in the first round of the playoffs.
JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard have combined to form a solid veteran tandem down low, Alex Caruso has brought energy off the bench and other vets have done well enough on the defensive end to make the Lakers one of the hardest teams to score upon in the league.
The issue is nights like Friday, when James and Davis are slowed down and no one else on the Lakers can pick up the slack.
No Laker had more than 14 points, four rebounds or four assists outside James or Davis, who combined for 45 of the Lakers' 94 points. Davis and James combined to shoot 17-of-31, and the rest of the team went 18-of-52.
Meanwhile, Houston's supporting cast was exceptional outside Harden and Russell Westbrook, who filled up the stat sheet with 24 points, nine rebounds and six assists.
Eric Gordon had 23 points on just 14 shots. Robert Covington had four steals. P.J. Tucker played excellent defense and grabbed nine rebounds. Austin Rivers added 10 points off the bench, and fellow sub Jeff Green had seven points and three steals of his own.
The Lakers' roster outside Davis and James simply needs to do a better job, but then again, this is only one game and is not reflective of how well they've meshed and played together otherwise this season. They have a quick turnaround to figure things out, though, with Game 2 on Sunday.
Game 2 is set for Sunday at 8:30 p.m. ET. ABC will televise the game.