Lakers can’t evade Rockets’ defense or stop James Harden in Game 1 loss

It wasn’t the three-point shooting contest one might have expected from a game against the Houston Rockets, but the Rockets got every other kind of shot they wanted.

The team maligned for its defense — led by a coach often accused of not caring enough about defense — held the Lakers below 100 points.

For the second straight playoff series, the Lakers dropped Game 1. This time, they lost to the Rockets, 112-97, who were fueled by 36 points from James Harden in 34 minutes, 24 by Russell Westbrook, 23 by Eric Gordon and a disruptive defensive performance by P.J. Tucker.

The Lakers, meanwhile, got 25 points from Anthony Davis and 20 from LeBron James, while Alex Caruso added 14.

“We couldn’t get a rhythm offensively,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “Thought we did a better job in the second half especially defensively … but we couldn’t get in a rhythm offensively starting the fourth.”

The Lakers also lost Game 1 of their first-round series against the Portland Trail Blazers, only to win the next four games to advance to this round. The Rockets, meanwhile, needed seven games to finally eliminate their first-round opponent, the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Highlights from the Lakers’ loss to the Houston Rockets on Friday.

The first round served as a cautionary tale for the Lakers, though it wasn’t one upon which they dwelled. Vogel worried about their mental preparedness compared with that of a team that had been playing for the six days since the Lakers’ last game.

The Lakers’ start inspired confidence, with a 7-0 lead. Harden was responsible for 10 of the Rockets’ next 12 points, helping Houston tie the score at 12.

Both teams made 11 of their 20 first-quarter shots, shooting 55%, with the Rockets taking a 29-28 lead. The only difference was that the Rockets made one more three-pointer than the Lakers.

There were some signs from the beginning that this might be a tougher night for the Lakers. There were Lakers players who had slow starts, but bigger than that was their trouble stopping Harden without fouling him. Harden scored 12 points in the first quarter and shot three free throws. He scored 13 points in the second quarter and shot eight free throws.

“We were careless fouling him and that definitely gets him going,” Vogel said. “We know this about James. If you’re gonna beat the Houston Rockets, you gotta play him without fouling.”

James had some highlight-reel moments in the first half. With 8:32 left in the second quarter, he ran toward the basket and as he elevated for a dunk, Westbrook tried to get in front of him. Westbrook simply became a victim of the moment. Rob Pelinka patted the top of his head from where he sat, in the distanced spectator seats where more than a dozen family members and guests of the Lakers sat.

The Lakers tied it at 52 with 3:21 left in the second quarter on a floater from Rajon Rondo, playing in his first game since March 10. But at halftime they trailed 63-55, still unable to find a sustainable answer to Harden.

Furthermore, the Rockets had figured out how to slow the Lakers’ fast-break offense.

In exchange for James dunking on his teammate in the first quarter, Harden returned the favor in the third, dunking on James as he tried to defend the breakaway basket.

Early in the fourth quarter, Westbrook elevated for a layup, but the second the ball left his hands, James swatted it ferociously off the court. The Lakers trailed by 10 early in the fourth at that point, 92-82. But the Rockets opened the fourth quarter with a 16-3 run that gave them a 19-point lead. The Lakers never recovered from that.

“We gotta come out and compete to win a game,” Vogel said. “This one’s behind us. We lost it. And we gotta move on to Game 2.”

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