Even after a promising launch sequence in Game 1, the Houston Rockets failed to take off against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference semifinals. And now, their season is officially over.
The Lakers had little trouble dispatching the Rockets in a 119-96 blowout, winning the series 4-1 and advancing to their first Western Conference finals since 2010. Just like last series against the Portland Trail Blazers, the Lakers shrugged off a discouraging Game 1 loss and proceeded to work over an overmatched opponent.
Leading the way was LeBron James, who alternated between effortless and angry from the opening tip. The Lakers superstar reeled off 11 points on 4-of-4 shooting in the first quarter, and finished with 29 points on 9-of-18 shooting with 11 rebounds, 7 assists and 2 steals.
Anthony Davis was more quiet than usual with only 13 points, but his presence was felt on defense, haunting the smaller Rockets in the paint.
Lakers suffocated the Rockets
The Lakers’ true dominance showed on the defensive end, where the Rockets’ small ball offense sputtered. By the end of the third quarter, Houston was down 95-69 and shooting 27-of-67 from the field (10-of-34 from deep) with 11 turnovers.
Summing up the night was a chasedown block on James Harden from Alex Caruso, who haunted the Rockets all series at the perimeter and in transition.
Harden again led the Rockets in scoring with 30 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists, but the only ways the Rockets were going to seriously challenge the Lakers was a supernova performance from their star and/or a team-wide lockdown effort on defense.
That defense seemed to come in Game 1, but the Lakers responded by significantly reducing the minutes of centers JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard and unleashing Davis’ potential at the 5. Rotation forward Danuel House’s unceremonious ejection from the playoffs for bubble shenanigans sure didn’t help the Rockets either.
Rockets have plenty of questions for next year
A year ago, the Rockets made one of the biggest gambles of the offseason with the Russell Westbrook trade, in which they acquired the former Oklahoma City Thunder point guard for Chris Paul and a plethora of draft capital.
Instead of keeping together a Harden-Paul pairing that had once pushed the Golden State Warriors to the brink, the Rockets installed another ball-dominant point guard and arguably mortgaged their future to do it. It might have been a move the Rockets had to make for team chemistry, but it seems to have worked out as badly as the pessimists expected. Including with team chemistry.
The team then made another big gamble during the season by trading away starting center Clint Capela for forward Robert Covington, fully embracing small ball with the 6-foot-5 P.J. Tucker as the team’s new center.
Those moves defined the direction of the Rockets’ future, so it’s probably not great that the team seemed overwhelmed by the Lakers in the paint at times and watched Westbrook display his trademark high-volume, low-efficiency self this series. It at least beat Paul and the Thunder in the first round, but that was always a house-money run for OKC.
The Rockets still have their core of Harden, Westbrook, Covington, Tucker and Eric Gordon under contract for next year, but it may take yet another drastic move to improve their outlook beyond what it is right now.
Lakers waiting for West finals opponent
Now heading to their first Western Conference finals since Kobe Bryant’s last championship, the Lakers will have to wait and see who joins them.
The Los Angeles Clippers have long been considered the Lakers’ opponent of destiny and are currently up 3-2 against the Denver Nuggets. The Nuggets held off elimination once already with a surging win on Friday, but will have to so again in Game 6 on Sunday.
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