LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — So much fatigue. So much for playing tiny lineups. So much for an entire organization feeling crushing pressure to advance.
The Lakers won the tip-off against the small-ball Houston Rockets in Game 1 of their second-round series Friday, and then every perceived advantage they had entering the night vanished.
The Rockets had sharper stars, with James Harden and Russell Westbrook primed and scoring 60 points combined to 45 from LeBron James and Anthony Davis. The Rockets had a more cohesive defense, which forced the Lakers to lose 15 turnovers and shoot under 43 percent.
The Rockets had more energy, even though the Lakers had nearly a week to rest and plan and prepare — they were the ones who looked dead on their feet, hands on their hips as the Rockets led by as much as 19 in a slow, plodding march to a 112-97 Game 1 loss for the favored Lakers.
James compared the difficulty of preparing for their speed to lining up on the gridiron against the “Greatest Show on Turf” Rams teams: It’s one thing to scout it, and another thing to line up against it.
“It’s like, ‘OK, we need to play them again,’” James said. “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.”
The enormity of the challenge the shortest lineup in the NBA will present was apparent early, as the Lakers struggled to find the groove they hit in the last four wins against the Portland Trail Blazers in Round 1. They couldn’t find the lanes to the rim as fleet-footed Houston covered them up, and their stocky frames were able to take the pounding from the Lakers’ big men.
There were shades of the Portland series Game 1, when the Lakers fell to the Blazers in a game in which their offense had all kinds of kinks with 3-pointers bouncing out and their stars looking tentative on their drives to the rim. But in losing to the Rockets, the Lakers looked a step slow on defense, too, where they failed to stop Harden (36 points, 12 for 20 shooting) and were outscored by 15 points during the 32 minutes when Westbrook was on the floor.
The Lakers pushed back on their perceived edges: They claimed that not playing in days had pulled them out a rhythm, and that not knowing who their opponent was until the final seconds of Wednesday night’s Game 7 made them hedge.
“I’ve always felt the team that played a Game 7 has a slight advantage, but we can’t look at that as any type of excuse,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “We’re not an excuse team and we’ve gotta come out and compete to win a game.”
The initial sequences played out like fighters cautiously circling, with neither team pulling ahead very far. It was tied at 52 late in the second quarter before the Rockets scored nine unanswered points going into the intermission, including three straight baskets from Westbrook and Harden.
The Lakers also lamented that they let Harden get to the line early: The NBA’s scoring champ had 25 points by halftime.
The 35-year-old James (20 points) had moments that seemed to turn back the clock: a second-quarter towering dunk over Westbrook cut a fearsome silhouette, and a chase down block of Westbrook in the third was capped by an end-to-end dash for his own contested finish off the glass.
But even James needs help these days. Aside from Alex Caruso (14 points), no one scored more than Danny Green’s 10 points among the supporting cast. And the Lakers’ mistakes hurt the most: The mistakes came on careless tosses on the perimeter and inside, as James and Rajon Rondo each had four turnovers, and Davis had three. The Rockets defense was spring-loaded and ready to run back for a total of 27 points off Lakers turnovers.
Davis led the Lakers in scoring with 25 points found some midrange rhythm on 10 for 16 shooting, but it was work: He couldn’t make the cruising cuts to the rim that have been the foundation of his game this season. P.J. Tucker stationed himself like a double-wide trailer in the paint to deter him from spinning to the basket.
But ultimately beyond schematic tweaks, the Lakers felt they could have brought more energy themselves, especially on defensive possessions where they struggled to rotate as fast as the Rockets pinged the ball around the court.
“I don’t think we played as hard as we could,” Caruso said. “I think that falls on nobody’s shoulders but our own, the five guys that are out there, and everybody else that’s around them.”
Even though the Lakers brought back Rondo after a lengthy absence dating to March, they were still down a man: Jason Kidd suffered what Vogel described as “severe back spasms” leaving the coaching staff down two with Lionel Hollins watching from home.
The Lakers had more fans than they’ve ever had in the bubble: Many of their wives and girlfriends sat a few feet back from the sideline as a handful of their children danced to pregame music. But losing is losing, and soon the Lakers’ loved ones mirrored their own serious expressions.
There’s a lot of series left in a best-of-seven, and the Lakers have come back before. But Game 1 served to say there are few advantages for the Lakers: They’ll have to earn every inch of the way.