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Lakers narrowly avoid letdown against Rockets to even series

The Lakers almost fell apart in the second half, but LeBron James wasn’t going to let them go down 0-2 to the Rockets in the second round of the NBA playoffs.

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Houston Rockets v Los Angeles Lakers - Game Two Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Prior to the Lakers tipping off their Game 2 rematch against the Houston Rockets, head coach Frank Vogel wanted to make sure his team didn’t get complacent. Even though they were coming off a loss, he didn’t want any of his players thinking that because they had lost the first game of their last series and gone on to win the next four games easily against Portland that they could do the same thing against Houston.

“We can’t fall into the trap that because Game 2 was easy in the last round that Game 2 is going to be easy tonight. We’ve got to make sure we play at a much higher level on both sides of the ball,” Vogel said.

The Lakers did just that, coming out energized and active right from the jump. More than that, they made nearly every adjustment one would want from the team, and it all culminated in a 117-109 victory to tie up the series at 1-1.

It started with their star big man. Anthony Davis was great in this one, looking like a man who had heard the noise about his struggles against PJ Tucker at times in the first game of this series. He went right at Tucker to start the night, getting him to pick up two quick fouls and then feasting on the rest of the smaller Rockets to finish the first half with 18 points and lead the Lakers to a 67-51 lead. He ultimately ended the evening with 34 points and 10 rebounds.

It wasn’t just Davis who got going though. The Lakers threw multiple defensive looks at the Rockets, coming with quick double teams at James Harden and Russell Westbrook, as well as picking up full court at times and throwing in some zone to additionally confuse the Rockets. They played off Westbrook to bait him into threes and turnovers, and used those miscues to ignite their break. They didn’t play perfect defense — Eric Gordon feasted on open threes to finish with 24 points — but they were as close as could reasonably be expected, at least in the first half.

Lakers reserve forward Markieff Morris was critical of his own effort following Game 1, saying he needed to bring more energy for the team in the second game. On that front, mission accomplished. Morris scored 12 points in his first three minutes of playing time off the pine, and finished with a new Lakers-high in points with 16. His barrage of threes off the bench started an 18-4 run that allowed the Lakers to build up their halftime lead.

L.A. wouldn’t get to cruise in this one, though. They fell into the exact trap Vogel was concerned about to start the third quarter, with the Rockets bombing threes as they went on a 14-0 run to begin the second half, and ended the quarter outscoring the Lakers 41-22.

But in the start of the fourth, the Lakers were ready to even up this series. LeBron James was not going to let them lose this one. He was all over the place on defense, and he, Alex Caruso (4 assists, including two lobs to LeBron) and Kyle Kuzma (13 points, 6 rebounds) got out on the break to great effectiveness. They weathered the storm the Rockets threw at them, and while their third-quarter lapse could have cost them, they showed the DNA of a contender by not laying down, and punching back instead. James ended the night with 28 points, 9 assists, 11 rebounds, 4 steals and 2 blocks.

We also have to note this: Rajon Rondo is a popular target for Lakers fans and observers of the team, but he was great in this one off the bench, getting the team to play with good pace and giving great effort on defense to finish with 10 points and 9 assists. He was a team-high plus-minus of 28, and even essentially iced the game with a long jumper before James really put it away with a turnaround J. Who knows if he can keep it up, but Rondo deserves his flowers after this one.

As far as rotations go in this one, Dion Waiters also played his first major minutes of the series, although he was forced to exit early after sustaining a groin injury. Vogel also opted to bench Dwight Howard for this game, going small when JaVale McGee — who left the second half with ankle pain — was not on the floor to give James and Davis more spacing.

The Lakers will have Monday off — happy Labor Day, everyone — and will see the Rockets for a Game 3 matchup on Tuesday. The Lakers avoided what would have been a huge letdown, and they are very much alive and in the championship hunt once again. And most importantly: They’re still undefeated in their Black Mamba jerseys. They need to wear those for the rest of the playoffs.

For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.

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