LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — In the NBA bubble, it’s taken the Lakers a few extra steps to get top speed.
But once they’ve played their best, it’s been hard for anyone to catch them.
Full speed was Sunday night, after LeBron James’ clinching bucket with 32 seconds left, a fadeaway jumper, Anthony Davis met him on the other end of the court — the two Lakers stars beamed as they low-fived, confident in their eventual 117-109 triumph over the Houston Rockets to even up the series in Game 2.
Davis scored 34 points, while James was an assist shy of a triple-double with 28 points and 11 rebounds. Both outplayed the Houston Rockets’ stars James Harden and Russell Westbrook, who combined for 37 points as the Lakers put on a defensive clinic, withstanding the outside assault of 22 threes from their opponent.
Like their last series, in which the Lakers revved up starting in Game 2 and beat the Blazers in four straight games, the victory was intoned with a message: The Rockets play small because they were built that way and have no other choice. But the Lakers can play any way they want — and still win.
“Be able to play big vs teams, be able to play small, be able to play in between — we built that from the beginning and we have that, always had that in our toolbox,” said James, who along with Davis had a powerful say in general manager Rob Pelinka’s moves last summer. “And tonight was an example of that, being able to go to that.”
Frank Vogel said the plan was for the Lakers to continue to use their size: They started JaVale McGee, and Dwight Howard kept warm along the sideline. But Morris subbed in after Davis subbed out when Harden incidentally poked him in the eye, and then he made four 3-pointers in a row.
Rajon Rondo (10 points, 9 assists), the recently returned veteran point guard, knew well enough to keep feeding him, giving the Lakers a 16-point lead by the end of the first quarter. Vogel knew well enough to keep them both in.
“Sometimes you gotta ride that hot hand or the hot lineup,” he said. “The plan was to play JaVale and Dwight but we obviously audibled at that point.”
Playing down to Houston’s size didn’t change many of the Lakers’ advantages: They outscored the Rockets by 28 points in the paint, and they wound up with six more rebounds after Houston battled them even on the boards in Game 1. Defensively, they held the Rockets to under 45 percent shooting, with James leading with two blocks including an emphatic volleyball swat of Westbrook in the fourth quarter.
Harden wound up with 27 points, but it was an especially rough night for Westbrook, who had 10 points on 4 for 15 shooting. He had just four assists against seven turnovers, which helped fuel the Lakers’ 27 points off of Houston’s 17 giveaways. Two nights earlier, the Rockets had scored that much themselves off of turnovers.
Finding the tables flipped, Westbrook seemed like he was searching after the loss: “Right now, I’m just runnin’ around. I gotta look at film and figure out how to be effective.”
Early on, the Lakers’ Game 2 mojo — combined with the icy confidence in their Black Mamba jerseys — seemed to have them on the right track.
They smothered Harden and Westbrook early on with halfcourt traps and double-teams, forcing the ball out of the hands of Houston’s best playmakers.
In these playoffs, there’s been no more auspicious sign than Davis getting hot early: He was once again, starting out 3 for 4 from the floor and finishing his midrange looks over the head of Tucker.
Davis finished 15 for 24 shooting, taking eight more shots than he did in Game 1.
But after halftime, the Lakers’ plan seemed to be blowing apart as Eric Gordon and Tucker picked up steam from behind the arc. The Rockets racked up 14 points before the Lakers could score once, cutting what was a 16-point lead to two. Ultimately Houston drew a 41-23 advantage in that quarter alone, leading by two points headed into the fourth.
In Game 1, couldn’t find a way to turn around a second half slump. But on Sunday, they were prepared: The final frame saw Houston score just 17 points, with the Lakers fueled by a huge advantage in the paint and 20 fast break points.
“We’re not in that situation thinking we can be down 0-2 if we lose this game,” Davis said. “Our mindset is how do we win this game and we came out with a defensive mindset.”
James seemed to greatly relish the closing moments of the win: His fourth quarter alley-oop from Alex Caruso stood out as one of the games’ most emphatic moments. Afterward shouted to some of his friends in the burgeoning Lakers fan section.
For the Lakers, being even in their playoff series has somehow still felt like being up. After saying Friday it took time to prepare for Houston’s speed, James said on Sunday that they’re all caught up.
“It’s something that can catch you off guard in a Game 1 situation,” James said. “We got a feel for that and we understand how hard and every possession and how much scrambling and how much runnin’ and how much pace and how physical the game’s gonna be against this team, because they’re very good, extremely good, no matter who’s on the floor.”
So are the Lakers.