Lakers vs. Rockets score, takeaways: LeBron James gets L.A. started, ‘Playoff Rondo’ brings it home in Game 3

The Los Angeles Lakers have been nothing if not consistent in these playoffs. Against both the Portland Trail Blazers and Houston Rockets, they lost their series opener. And against both the Blazers and the Rockets, they went undefeated afterward. After taking four in a row off of Portland, the Lakers have now beaten Houston in both Games 2 and 3 to take a 2-1 series lead over the Rockets. Tuesday’s win was driven by the stars. LeBron James carried the Lakers through the first half in scoring 29 points in two quarters, but Rajon Rondo provided a surprising 21 points and nine assists to carry the Lakers to the finish line. 

And so, a tremendous performance by Houston’s two best players goes to waste. Russell Westbrook’s decision-making was certainly questionable, but he did give the Rockets 30 points on 13-of-24 shooting. James Harden chipped in 33 points of his own, but the role players put up only 39 points beyond them. Houston doesn’t often attempt only 30 3-pointers, but they did in this game, and it came back to haunt them. Now the pressure is on the Rockets. If they don’t make some serious adjustments, the Lakers will send them home by the end of the week. Here are the biggest takeaways from Game 3. 

Playoff Rondo

The man, the myth, the legend. He spends 10 months every year in hibernation, but when the postseason rolls around, Rajon Rondo turns into the Hall of Famer we knew and loved in Boston. On Sunday, his individual stats were pedestrian, but the Lakers outscored the Rockets by 28 points during his minutes on the floor. The margin wasn’t quite that big on Tuesday, but Rondo was an absolutely essential element of the victory with 21 points and nine assists. 

Some of it boils down to effort. Rondo’s energy in the playoffs is undoubtedly different. Some of it flows from the effect he has on teammates. Kyle Kuzma scored 17 points off of the bench with many coming out of cuts Rondo took advantage of. When off-ball movement grinds to a halt in the playoffs, having a point guard who can generate some is essential. And some of this is just magic. Rondo is a career 31.6 percent 3-point shooter, but he’s making 40 percent on five attempts per game in this series. It’s best not to over-explain the phenomenon of playoff Rondo. It is one of the NBA’s great mysteries, and the Lakers are just fine with that. 

Houston is running out of bodies

Danuel House missed Game 3 for personal reasons. It is unclear if he will be back for Game 4. Robert Covington took a nasty fall after a collision with Kyle Kuzma in the fourth quarter and needed to leave the game. His status is not known. Despite scoring 30 points, Russell Westbrook has struggled through a groin injury for most of this postseason. 

At a certain point, teams hit the point of no return when it comes to injuries. In Game 3, Houston’s role players made only six 3-pointers. This was a team that already had the 6-4 Eric Gordon defending LeBron James. They don’t exactly have the margin for error that a typical contender would. James Harden and Russell Westbrook were their only sources of consistent offense in Game 3, and that has to change in Game 4. 

The Lakers are switching things up defensively

The Lakers can live with 33 points out of Harden when the rest of the Rockets are struggling. Houston’s path to winning this series, in light of the past two games, might simply rely on Harden scoring in the 40’s the rest of the series. That’s always a possibility with the scoring champion, but the Lakers, without a stopper like Lu Dort, have thrown so many different looks Harden’s way that he’s struggled to find any sort of rhythm, especially in second halves. 

In Game 2, the 1-2-2 zone they used in the second and fourth quarters was the star. In Game 3, it was their tightened traps. In Game 2, those traps led to 20 3-pointers in three quarters for the Rockets because they were far too aggressive. The Lakers had defenders scamper across the court with so little purpose that Harden had time to swing the ball to open shooters with ease. In Game 3, the traps were more decisive. Usually, the trapper would come from the player closest to Harden, and both defenders would shade him away from that direction so as to take away the obvious pass. The Lakers executed the traps so late in the shot clock that the Rockets didn’t have time to get the ball back to Harden with any time to create. The rotations, especially with a non-shooter like Westbrook in the game, were simple enough. The Lakers got the stops they needed. 

Houston will have a counter in Game 4. The Lakers will have a counter to that counter ready. Their plan against Harden has been to change the plan constantly, and so far, it has worked to perfection. 

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