The Houston Rockets, the smell of a seven-game fight that went down to the final possession fresh on their jerseys, bulldozed the freshest team in the bubble Friday.
In beating the Lakers 112-97, Houston quieted a new round of questions about their strategy, reminding everyone that they’re not really playing “small ball” in their center-less lineup. They’re just a little more grounded.
“There are just not that many plays that are above the rim. Most of it’s on the floor, position or loose balls,” Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said. “I don’t know how many times you have to be above the rim. Every once in a while, they’re above the rim? Great. But, if we can control everything below the rim, I’ll take that.
“All of our guys can almost touch the rim … so it’s not that small.”
Anthony Davis and LeBron James, whose combined height advantage is almost a foot taller than Houston’s P.J. Tucker, tried to muscle the Rockets forward and found out they were pushing into a granite wall. Robert Covington is technically the center, but he’s a fairly slender 6 foot 7. Still, he turned away shots at the rim.
“People keep saying we’re small, but if you don’t have heart, it doesn’t matter,” Tucker said. “If you don’t have dog in you, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter how tall you are if you have heart and you’re a competitor.”
If the Rockets have dog inside of them, Tucker is a mastiff. Friday he scored six points but scrapped for nine rebounds against the Lakers’ bigger frontcourt. With him on the court, Houston was 16 points better than the Lakers — a Rockets best in the plus-minus rating.
The 35-year-old forward played professionally in Israel, Ukraine, Greece, Italy and Germany before finding a home in the NBA. Among coaches, he’s revered for his toughness and his awareness, a player willing to take on the toughest challenge on defense while parking in the corner on offense, ready to catch and shoot if the ball makes its way to him.
After beating the Lakers, Tucker was asked about the Rockets being small and having to body up with James and Davis, and in his answer, he delivered his mission statement.
“Yeah, I’m short. But I’m strong and I can move my feet," he said with defiance. “And I can stay in front of anybody. I’m not going to quit. I’m going to fight every play. They’re going to score. Those guys are two of the best players of our generation — they’re going to score the ball. They’re going to score a lot of times. But we’re going to try and make it tough, try and make them work hard, and try to wear them down throughout the game.
“That’s all you can do — fight. We’re fighters. I’m going to fight to the end no matter what.”
The Rockets showed a lot of fight Friday, especially for a team that wasn’t sure it’d be in the second round until the final possession of Game 7 against Oklahoma City. But where Denver, another team coming off a Game 7, was emotionally spent in a Game 1 loss to the Clippers, the Rockets were never short on energy.
First it was James Harden, setting the tone on offense by hitting step-back jumpers and getting to the free-throw line. Then it was Russell Westbrook, never short on energy, injecting emotion and F-bombs into the game. And finally, it was Eric Gordon, Houston’s oft-forgotten third option, owning the Lakers in the fourth.
But for all their offensive accomplishments, it was their defense that continued to make the difference.
Owners of the league’s median defense in the regular season, no one has been better in the playoffs on that side of the ball than the Rockets, with Harden getting key stops and playing passing lanes in their Game 7 win against the Thunder and in the series opener with the Lakers.
“We want to make shots. … But if shots aren’t falling for us, we have something to fall back on and that’s our defense,” Harden said, telling a truth few believe. “We’ve been showing that.”
So much of that is Tucker, the team’s middle linebacker — both in body type and in responsibility — on defense setting the tone. They showed it during the season before the pandemic, Tucker said, but never this regularly.
“We’ve definitely played to our competition a bunch this season. We’ve lost a lot games we shouldn’t have lost because of that fact," he said "But we’ve been able to focus in. Everyone has done their part. Just being here together, just talking every night, talking about it, being around each other, I think it’s helped us become closer as a team — even though we were already a pretty close-knit team. It’s just something, throughout the time we’ve been here, we know that if we play defense, we’ve got a chance to win.”
That chance to win ultimately hinges on the Rockets’ ability to guard James and Davis, the series’ two best players and toughest defensive assignments. The Rockets put five guys on the court with a fighting chance of getting it done, but D’Antoni knows that no one is more equipped for the job than Tucker.
It’s why he’s here.
He says the team "does a great job of responding, taking the challenge. We’re talking about LeBron and Anthony Davis, two of the best players in the league. They take that challenge,” D’Antoni said. “P.J. has taken that challenge all his life. That’s why he’s in the NBA.”
After a night where he scored six points, Tucker is a major reason why the Rockets lead the Lakers 1-0.