Rockets ride small ball to Game 1 upset of Lakers

Seven months ago, before the coronavirus pandemic put the NBA season on ice, the Houston Rockets decided to again move away from the norm and create a kind of team rarely seen in the modern NBA.

Instead of acquiring a big man at the trade deadline, one of the NBA’s smallest teams traded starting center Clint Capela away for power forward Robert Covington. The move left the 6-foot-5 P.J. Tucker as the Rockets’ starting center, and put the team all-in on perimeter shooting and clearing the lane for James Harden and Russell Westbrook.

That experiment was put to its biggest test on Saturday against the Los Angeles Lakers’ imposing front line. One game in, it’s so far, so good for Houston.

Houston Rockets' Russell Westbrook (0) shoots over Los Angeles Lakers' Anthony Davis (3) during the first half of an NBA conference semifinal playoff basketball game Friday, Sept. 4, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
The Rockets' small ball stayed effective against the Lakers' front line. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

James Harden, Russell Westbrook lead Game 1 win

The Rockets posted a 112-97 Game 1 win behind a 36-point game from Harden and 24 points, nine rebounds and six assists from Westbrook.

The Lakers’ size advantage — frequently playing both Anthony Davis and one of JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard — barely seemed to affect Houston, which actually won the points in the paint battle 42-20 and tied in rebounds 41-41.

Tucker in particular showed his value on defense, stonewalling the Lakers outside the paint, hauling in nine rebounds (three offensive) and finishing a game-high plus-19.

LeBron James finished with 20 points, eight rebounds and seven assists on 7-of-15 shooting. Davis chipped in 25 points and 14 rebounds. Neither player was without their highlights.

But in between those moments, there were turnovers and bad shots. The Rockets frequently pestered passing lines and gladly let the Lakers try to beat them at the 3-point line. Alex Caruso, Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Rajon Rondo and Kyle Kuzma combined to go 8-of-26 from deep.

We’ll see how the Lakers adjust going forward, but, for now, the Rockets have them on their back foot simply by doing what has worked for them all season.

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