07 February 2020 20:33

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Russell Westbrook, Rockets show off small-ball prowess in eye-opening victory over the Lakers

For one night at least, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey looks like a genius. In their second game since trading Clint Capela and committing, for better or worse, to an extreme small-ball approach with 6-foot-5 P.J. Tucker as the starting center, the Rockets took down the Los Angeles Lakers, 121-111, on Thursday. As far as regular-season victories go, it was about as impressive a showing as you'll see, particularly from Russell Westbrook, who was the most idealized version of himself in torching the Lakers for 41 points, eight boards and five assists on 61-percent shooting. When his hot streaks include a lot of hot shooting from outside, bet big on a crash, because settling for those shots almost always eventually gets him into trouble. But what we saw on Thursday night feels more sustainable than a typical Westbrook hot streak that we know can turn cold in the snap of a finger.

Without a big man in the paint, and Rockets shooters all around the arc pulling Lakers defenders away from rim, Westbrook had a one-on-one lane to the rim almost every possession, and he was unstoppable. Here Westbrook does his damage in transition, where he is going to go straight to the rim every time without a rim protector on the floor--which, moving forward, is going to often be the case as teams are forced to downsize in an effort to not get run off the floor by Houston's small-ball lineup: When teams do try to stay big to exploit Houston's small lineup, that works in Westbrook's favor, too. Look at this next play, and pay particular attention to JaVale McGee, No. 7 for the Lakers, running out to cover a Houston shooter as Westbrook accelerates through the vacated lane: He would've run to the rim, taking McGee with him, which would've closed Westbrook's lane. The Lakers, in theory, would be a prime example of a team that should expose Houston's small-ball lineup with all their size. If the Rockets have to try to guard Davis with P.J. Tucker, then the Lakers spent much of Thursday asking Davis--in a default move for lack of a bigger player on the court--to guard Westbrook.

Look at how open the rim is on these plays without a Houston big man hanging out down there. When Morey was asked why he ultimately felt trading Capela and going small was the right move, he spoke to everything we just noted in the clips and analysis above. "The best way to play with our stars, that we feel is the one that gives us the best chance to win the championship, is with a stretch four, playing up-tempo, shooting and wing defenders," Morey said, via the Houston Chronicle. With Harden, Westbrook, Eric Gordon, Covington and Tucker, the Rockets can switch every action and remain in comfortable matchups on the perimeter. It will require all those small guys to battle like hell on the inside, and Tucker and company did that all night against the Lakers--boxing out, bodying post players, scrambling for rebounds, and on down the line of hustle plays.

That takes a lot of energy, but the same can be said for big guys trying to run with Houston's smalls. In many ways, Westbrook was always going to be the barometer for this team's eventual playoff fortunes. Defenses are going to double Harden; the Lakers did it consistently Thursday night and held him to 14 points on 3 of 10 shooting. Harden is not going to be held to 14 points on 10 shots often, but the fact remains that he is going to have to pass out of those doubles, and Westbrook is going to have to make the defenses pay when he does. There's also that one of LeBron helplessly watching J.R. Smith dribble the wrong way in the 2018 NBA Finals, although it feels wrong to say the most recognizable photo of his career is the result of another guy's blunder.

His chase-down block on Andre Iguodala in Game 7 of the 2016 Finals was the most iconic single play of the last decade but a still photo can't possibly capture what made that play so impressive. There's a very good chance that, when you look back on LeBron's career 20 years from now, the single most memorable photograph of perhaps the game's greatest player was taken on a random night in February, during his 17th season in the league. During last night's Lakers-Rockets game, LeBron found himself all alone on a fast break and threw down a massive reverse windmill jam. The Rockets are going all-in on this small ball thing At no point did the Lakers face any player from the Houston Rockets taller than 6-foot-8 during Thursday night's game at Staples Center. What the Lakers saw was the Rockets take playing small ball to a new level, never playing a traditional center, spreading the court with three-point shooters and letting their superstar guards James Harden and Russell Westbrook dominate the action.

The result was the Lakers' defense getting stretched to the point they were unable to contain the Rockets during a 121-111 defeat before 18,997 fans. The Lakers knew the game would be a challenge after the Rockets traded 6-foot-10 center Clint Capela to the Atlanta Hawks in a three-team deal that got Houston 6-8 Robert Covington from the Minnesota Timberwolves. "You know James is gonna create a lot of eyes on him with what he's doing this year as far as scoring the basketball. The Rockets started the 6-3 Westbrook and 6-5 Harden in the backcourt, 6-5 P.J. Tucker at center and 6-5 Danuel House Jr. and 6-3 Eric Gordon at forwards. Westbrook was the ringmaster, getting into the lane and seemingly at will in scoring 41 points on 17-for-28 shooting from the field. The Lakers kept Harden in check for the most part with constant double teams, limiting him to 14 points on three-for-10 shooting. But the Rockets shot 50.6% from the field and 45.2% from three-point range. "But it's really not that different than what we see with a lot of teams that have centers that shoot threes. The Lakers countered with their typical big lineup of 7-foot center JaVale McGee, 6-10 forward Anthony Davis, 6-8 forward James as well as 6-6 guard Danny Green and 6-2 guard Avery Bradley. But because the Rockets played so small, backup Lakers center Dwight Howard played just 4 minutes, 24 seconds. The Lakers went inside to Davis often, throwing him enough passes for him to score 32 points to go along with 13 rebounds. But as the game progressed, the Rockets began to double team Davis and the Lakers tried to force the ball inside. That was our game plan, though, to try to set screens, slip and force a switch, whether the guys who handle the ball drive or we throw it over the top. The answer to the question above, particularly after Thursday night's win over the Los Angeles Lakers is … possibly! It obviously helped that Russell Westbrook had one of those huge games when the Lakers tried double James Harden and held the superstar to just 14 points on 10 shots. There's the fact that Covington nailed 4-of-7 from deep, adding to the already-humongous group of shooters who will take advantage of an open look: Harden, Tucker, Danuel House Jr., Eric Gordon, Austin Rivers, Ben McLemore … it's exactly what LeBron James feared ahead of Thursday's game (via the Houston Chronicle): Now they're going to go to 60, 65 3s," James said at the Lakers shootaround on Thursday. So, it creates a lot more space for Russ (Westbrook) and (James) Harden." But for one night, the experiment worked in a big way. The celebrities who watched the Rockets run past the Lakers PHOTOS: Celebrities at the Rockets' big win over the Lakers Anastasia Karanikolaou, better known as Stassie Baby on Instagram, and Leon Starino Anderson attend a basketball game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Houston Rockets at Staples Center on February 06, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Allen Berezovsky/Getty Images) Browse through the photos above for a look at some of the celebrities who witnessed the Rockets run over the Lakers on Thursday night... less PHOTOS: Celebrities at the Rockets' big win over the Lakers Anastasia Karanikolaou, better known as Stassie Baby on Instagram, and Leon Starino Anderson attend a basketball game between the Los Angeles Lakers... more Photo: Allen Berezovsky/Getty Images Photo: Allen Berezovsky/Getty Images Image 1 of / 42 Caption Close The celebrities who watched the Rockets run past the Lakers 1 / 42 Back to Gallery As usual, the courtside seats at Los Angeles' Staples Center were filled with celebrities Thursday night, but they left disappointed if they thought they were going to celebrate a win over the undersized Rockets. JONATHAN FEIGEN AT TEXAS SPORTS NATION: How the undersized Rockets managed to beat the Lakers in L.A. The Rockets, who didn't play anyone taller than 6-foot-7, ambushed the Lakers 121-111 in front of a crowd that included the likes of Adam Sandler, Denzel Washington and Instagram model Anastasia Karanikolaou, better known by her social media handle Stassie Baby. Karanikolaou, who has more than 6.8 million Instagram followers and may be most famous for being close friends with Kylie Jenner, was courtside with Leon "Starino" Anderson, who is cozy with several celebrities and does some public relations work for stars like Justin Bieber. Of more interest to NBA fans, free agent point guard Darren Collison was sitting in the second row near Lakers owner Jeanie Buss. There are rumors that he's eyeing a return this season and would like to play for his hometown Lakers or Clippers. ESPN reported that Collison's attendance at Thursday's game was part of of the Lakers "recruiting" Collison, who averaged 12.5 points and 5 assists per game in his 10-year NBA career. Browse through the photos at the top of the page for a look at the celebrities sitting courtside for Thursday night's Rockets-Lakers game.