Playoffs 2020

Houston Rockets' defensive "heart" carries them to upset win over Los Angeles Lakers in game 1

With one of the greatest scorers to ever play the game in James Harden alongside one of the best offensive coaches in Mike D'Antoni, the Rockets are finding success on the defensive end.

More than a gimmick, the Rockets are proving that their small-ball rotation can match it with one of the best interior offensive squads in the NBA.

"I don't know why people keep saying we're small. I don't care if you're seven feet, if you don't have heart, it doesn't matter." Harden said postgame.

"We got guys that are able to switch and play different positions and guard each different guys on the court. It doesn't matter how tall you are, if you have the heart and you're a competitor you can be out there on the court."

It was the second meeting between this version of the Rockets and the Lakers with the quartet of LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook, and Harden active. The Rockets are now 2-0 in those meetings with the Game 1 win joining a February 6, 121-111 victory.

Despite winning that February contest, the Rockets were muscled inside, as the Lakers poured in 62 points in the paint with a dominant Davis finishing 14-for-21 from the field for 32 points, with only five shot attempts coming outside the paint.

In Game 1, the combination of PJ Tucker, Robert Covington, Jeff Green, Harden and co. restricted the purple and gold to a miserly 40 points inside - well below their regular-season average of 52.2.

A big factor in their defensive success inside was restricting Davis from getting any level of comfort close to the basket.

Davis led the Lakers with 25 points on an efficient 10-for-16 shooting, but on this occasion, the Rockets forced him to take half of his attempts from outside of the painted area.

"Yeah, I'm short, but I'm strong. I'm gonna fight every play, I'ma fight until the end, no matter what," Tucker said postgame.

Fight is the keyword. The Rockets were scrappy and they were desperate, forcing the Lakers out of their comfort zone and out to the perimeter.

The Lakers' struggles shooting from the outside have been well documented and they once again proved costly. Through six playoff games, the Lakers rank 14th out of 16 for 3-point percentage (33.3percent) and they couldn't even reach that mark in this one, struggling to shoot 11-for-28 (28.9 percent) on the night. The combination of James, Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Danny Green combined to shoot just 6-for-23 (26 percent).

James in particular struggled in the fourth quarter, playing nine scoreless minutes on 0-for-3 shooting, finishing with 20 points overall.

"There's no way you can simulate that speed, so getting out on the floor and having a Game 1, you get a good feel for it," James said of the unique nature of the Rockets lineup.

With just one game, there is plenty of basketball to be played in the series, but for the Rockets, game 1 was confirmation. Confirmation that they can compete, confirmation that they aren't just making up the numbers in the second round and confirmation that for the first time in Harden's time in Houston, they can win games on the defensive end.

"Even when our shots aren't falling, we have something to fall back on and that's our defense," Harden said.

The views on this page do not necessarily represent the views of the NBA or its clubs.

More from

Viewer's Guide: NBA on MLK Day Staff
The ripple effect of KD's absence
Gilbert McGregor
Why do Atlanta and Memphis host games on MLK Day?
Yash Matange
NBA honours MLK with "Imagine" spot
Gilbert McGregor
Robertson looks back at '68 benefit game in honor of MLK
Tim Reynolds
LeBron James
LeBron apologizes to Lakers fans
Benyam Kidane
More News