The Rockets have heard the takes saying their small-ball approach can’t succeed. Their response has hardened into a huge chip that’s now on their collective shoulders.
They made it clear Friday night as they walloped the Lakers 112-97 to open their Western Conference second-round playoff series.
“I don’t know why people keep saying we’re small. I don’t care if you’re 7 feet; if you don’t have heart, it doesn’t matter. If you don’t have dog in you, it doesn’t matter,” 6-5 guard James Harden (game-high 36 points) said after Houston matched LA’s rebounding total (41 apiece), forced 17 turnovers (27 points off them) and scored more points in the paint (42-40).
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It’s not clear whether Harden was taking a subtle shot at 6-10 Lakers forward Anthony Davis (25 points, 14 rebounds), but regardless he knows that size plus grit is greater than size alone. And that mindset is fueling a team whose tallest starter is 6-7 wing Robert Covington and whose starting center is 6-5 P.J. Tucker. Houston is 17-13, including seeding games and the playoffs, since trading center Clint Capela last Feburary.
“It’s all a joke. It’s funny. I laugh, all the memes, all the stuff everybody comes up with, but you’ve got to play, man. It’s basketball. You’ve got to play,” Tucker said. “Yeah, I’m short. I’m strong and I can move my feet and I can stay in front of you. I’m not going to quit. I’m going to fight every play.”
Tucker and the Rockets were fighting to keep LeBron James from powering through the paint early on. When James threw down an and-one dunk over 6-3 Russell Westbrook in the first half, the poster image looked emblematic of the size mismatches Houston faces.
Westbrook didn’t care, of course. He got up and kept coming at the Lakers’ defense on the other end. Westbrook finished with 24 points and six assists to go with nine rebounds.
“They play with a lot of speed,” James said, “obviously starting with the head of the snake in Russ. They play with a lot of speed both offensively and defensively.”
James used the early-2000s “Greatest Show on Turf” St. Louis Rams as an analog for the Rockets’ pace.
“We got a feel for their speed and we should be fully aware of that going into Game 2,” James said.
They also got a feel for how intense and irritating the Rockets can be. Westbrook’s after-the-whistle defense against Danny Green was humorous, but it was also a signal to Lakers players that they’ll need to find an extra gear in the series.
“We’re small, so we’ve got to be scrappy,” Westbrook said of Houston’s defensive approach, which is heavy on switching. “We’ve got to play hard because if we don’t, our chances of winning do come down.”
“Competing for a championship, you’ve got to lay it on the floor,” Westbrook added. “Game 1, Game 7, it doesn’t matter. Every game, every possession’s important and that’s how we’ve got to play it.”
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