The Lakers were firmly in control against the Rockets until some nervy final moments, but the body of work they put forth in the first 40 minutes was enough to overcome some sloppiness down the stretch.
Here are some takeaways from the part of the game where the Lakers were actually trying in their Game 4 win.
The Lakers absolutely dominated the possession battle
The Rockets turn games into a math problem by taking an absurdly high volume of threes, which goads their opponents into taking more 3-pointers themselves just because it seems impossible to keep up by only taking twos. The Lakers can’t succeed by taking jump shots, at least not consistently, so they simply exploited the math in a different way by generating more possessions than Houston.
The Lakers destroyed the Rockets on the offensive boards; their 12 rebounds off their own misses led to 17 second-chance points compared, to just 3 for Houston. Some of those extra opportunities came from the usual suspects, as Anthony Davis and Markieff Morris just used their length to get offensive rebounds, but even Danny Green got in on the action, creating three second chances that led to 7 points. Arguably the most critical offensive rebound didn’t lead to any points, but Rajon Rondo was able to run 14 more seconds off the clock while the Lakers almost self-destructed in the fourth quarter.
In total, the Lakers had 23 more shot attempts than the Rockets, allowing them to make up for hitting five fewer threes and letting Houston live at the foul line.
L.A. chased Houston off the 3-point line
The Rockets had been averaging 47.9 3-point attempts per game entering Game 4, but only got off 33 on Thursday. They shot over 40% again from distance for the third straight game, but lost anyway because the volume was so much lower than they needed. Eight of those 3-point attempts came from Russell Westbrook, and though Westbrook converted on three of them, those shots are still a win for L.A.’s scheme.
The Lakers were incredible — especially in the first half — at closing out hard and preventing Houston’s shooters from getting comfortable. They were forced to drive into the teeth of the Lakers’ defense, and even with the team playing small, that still meant trying to finish against Davis. When the Rockets got into the paint, they only shot 9-16 at the rim and 3-12 from floater range.
Houston only attempted three more 3-pointers than the Lakers, and it will be nearly impossible for them to manufacture enough points to beat the Lakers unless that ratio increases significantly.
Alex Caruso is turning into a point guard right before our eyes
There is no denying what Caruso brings to the floor for the Lakers, at least not at this point in the season. He did yeoman’s work defending James Harden, even standing up the former MVP at the rim with his verticality. Caruso was aggressive driving to the hoop, he jumped passing lanes, he hit two 3-pointers on kickouts from LeBron James, and his off-ball cuts brightened up a sometimes stagnant L.A. offense. The Lakers kept Caruso on in crunch time in Game 4 because of all the little ways he contributes.
But seeing Caruso actually behave like a point guard on occasion still feels like a new experience. He is showing flashes of being able to run an offense, at least in stretches, to take some of the burden off of James. The skip pass that he threw to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope for a corner 3-pointer was a perfect read, and the type of pass that Caruso has not been able to make before, even as recently as the seeding games.
Wow, that was a hell of a cross court off the bounce one handed pass from Caruso to find KCP in the weak side the corner. pic.twitter.com/hwCQmvdTG0— Mo Dakhil (@MoDakhil_NBA) September 10, 2020
Caruso later ran a beautiful fast break that led to a Green 3-pointer. The Lakers don’t necessarily need Caruso to be a true point guard, at least not with Playoff Rondo now in tow, but it certainly helps to have another initiator on the floor. It’s been an unexpected (and positive) development.
BONUS takeaway: Talen Horton-Tucker might be ready for prime time.
With two centers out of the rotation against Houston, Frank Vogel went to his bench for a little extra depth. Dion Waiters was out, and J.R. Smith proved problematic against Harden earlier in the series, so Talen Horton-Tucker got the first postseason action of his career.
The rookie was electric in his seven minutes. The Rockets had no awareness of how long Horton-Tucker’s arms were — how that isn’t the number one item on the scouting report is beyond me — and that resulted in numerous deflections, even though he was only credited with two steals. The Lakers actually involved Horton-Tucker on the offensive end as well. LeBron showed confidence in the rookie and kicked out to him for a corner 3-pointer. Even though he missed, he nailed a wing three and had a nifty drive and finish for a lay-up.
Horton-Tucker got a little too aggressive, shooting one three from Lillard range and trying to post up Harden on another possession, but overall he looked capable of being on the court. That’s a huge win for the 19-year-old (and the Lakers, too).