The age-old sports debate of rest vs. rust wasn’t settled when the Lakers lost Game 1 of the Western Conference Semifinals against the Houston Rockets on Friday night, but rust certainly picked up a victory.
LeBron James may have felt that the six days the Lakers had between the end of their first round series was beneficial for his body, but it didn’t help the Lakers’ level of play.
“That does have an impact, just sitting down for how many days we did, not (being) in that game rhythm like we had in the first round. If you’re not playing, it’s hard to get into playing rhythm,” Lakers guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope told reporters on Zoom after the team’s optional practice on Saturday. “We did our best, and (the film) wasn’t as bad as we thought it was, but having that many days off, it’s hard to get back into game rhythm.”
And it wasn’t really just a six-day layoff the Lakers were dealing with, either. The Lakers were originally supposed to wrap up their series against the Portland Trail Blazers on Wednesday, Aug. 26, but the players’ impromptu wildcat strike led it to be delayed to Saturday, Aug. 29.
That means that since the Lakers finished Game 4 against the Blazers on Monday, Aug. 24 — their last real NBA-level game, given that the Blazers were barely a playoff team with Damian Lillard, and a shell of one without him — they only had one pseudo NBA game in the 10 days leading up to the second round.
The Lakers practiced frequently during that time, but nothing can simulate the speed of an NBA game, especially against a team with the unconventional quickness possessed by the Rockets’ micro-ball, center-less lineups. That’s something James mentioned as an adjustment for L.A. after Game 1, and it was a concern his coach, Frank Vogel, echoed on Saturday.
“The answers were given to the test going into it,” Vogel said. “But even though you know something is coming, when it happens with speed in an environment and athletic setting like this, sometimes it just takes a little while to get used to that speed. Hopefully we got a taste of it and will be better in Game 2.”
Among the reasons for optimism for the rest of this series, the Lakers getting used to playing against Houston — and shooting better than 28.9% from three — loom as the biggest. The Rockets also could have played (and shot) better, but we’ve already seen this specific Lakers team rally after a close loss in Game 1 of a series in which they played uncharacteristically bad, and Markieff Morris is optimistic he and his teammates can do so again.
“Game 1 was a feel-out game,” Morris said. “We wasn’t trying to lose no game, but we definitely was trying to feel them out, knowing that they have to beat us four times and we have to beat them four times.
“We’ve just got to want it more. We’ve just got to come with that same energy that we came with when we played the Blazers,” Morris continued. “We can use (this loss) as motivation the rest of the series.”
If the Lakers can adjust with the same efficiency that they did against Portland, then maybe we will get to see the physical benefits of all the rest they got. If they can’t, then that rust may have cost them a critical, winnable game in this series.