Lakers’ ‘others’ lend James a hand
By Scott Cacciola
Plenty of players have had bumpy experiences at the NBA’s restart at Walt Disney World. Rajon Rondo and Markieff Morris, two key reserves for the Los Angeles Lakers, would count themselves among that group.
Rondo, the team’s backup point guard, broke his right thumb during a practice July 12 and left the league’s bubble so he could have surgery and recover. Morris, a forward who signed with the Lakers in February, shortly before the season was suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic, has been laboring to unearth his rhythm.
The Lakers have championship hopes in the form of LeBron James and Anthony Davis, their twin stars. But if they want to advance in the postseason, their supporting cast needs to start producing with consistency. Depth is an issue — one underscored by the absence of Avery Bradley, their top perimeter defender, who opted not to participate in the restart.
For one game, at least, James and Davis got the help they needed. In the Lakers’ 117-109 victory over the Houston Rockets on Sunday night in the Western Conference semifinals, Morris, 31, stretched the floor with his outside shooting while Rondo, 34, was a whirl of activity. The win evened the best-of-seven series at one game apiece before Game 3 on Tuesday night.
“That’s what the playoffs are about,” the Lakers’ Danny Green said. “Your superstars are going to play well. It’s what your others do.”
The others he referenced, the team’s supporting cast, have always been a concern with these Lakers, who have endured no small amount of turmoil this season. In that sense, their loss to the Rockets in Game 1 on Friday was true to form. The Rockets used their small lineup to space the floor and create oodles of open shots.
Rondo, who had four turnovers in that game, struggled, though perhaps for good reason: He had not played in a game since March 10.
“So you have to forgive a little bit of rust,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “His impact on our team is measured in swag and just the confidence that he brings to our group.”
On Sunday, Rondo had 10 points, 9 assists and 5 steals in 29 minutes. When he was on the court, the Lakers outscored the Rockets by 28 points.
Rondo, who did not address the news media after the game, also appeared to form some immediate chemistry with Morris, who came off the bench in the first quarter to hit four 3-pointers in a span of 2 minutes, 46 seconds. Rondo assisted on all four of them.
“Rondo’s not hard to play with,” said Morris, who added: “It’s about time I started making some shots.”
Entering the game, Morris had shot 3-of-13 from 3-point range in the playoffs. On Sunday, he shot 6-of-8 from the field and finished with 16 points.
“Last game, I felt like I didn’t affect the game at all,” he said. “And it’s not even just making shots. I just felt like I didn’t do anything. I didn’t bring no energy. I didn’t bring no toughness. I didn’t rebound the ball. I had zero stats across the board, so I felt like I have to be a little more aggressive. This is the best series for me to play a lot of minutes.”
That had everything to do with matchups and the unique style of play that the Rockets, with their center-less rotation, brought to the bubble.
After Game 1, James spoke highly of the Rockets’ speed. He compared them to the NFL’s St. Louis Rams, circa the early 2000s, a team that seemed to run on rocket fuel.
“The greatest show on turf,” James said. “People always said how you could scout ’em, scout ’em, scout ’em — until you got on the field.”
There was no way opposing defenses could simulate the Rams’ speed, said James, who suggested that the Rockets are much the same. His hope was that the Lakers would make the necessary adjustments after getting punished in transition in Game 1.
They made enough.
Vogel went smaller in Game 2, effectively benching his centers. JaVale McGee played just eight minutes before he left because of an ankle injury. (Vogel said after the game that McGee was undergoing an MRI.) And while Vogel said he had intended to play Dwight Howard, his backup center, Morris was too good and Vogel decided to stick with him. Howard remained on the bench for the duration.
At the same time, the Lakers played swarming defense on James Harden, who had to work for his 27 points, and Russell Westbrook, who shot 4-of-15 from the field for 10 points while committing seven turnovers. Even by Westbrook-ian standards, he was chaotic.
“It’s on me,” Westbrook said. “I don’t point fingers at anybody else. I own my mistakes. I own what I do, and that’s that.”
The Lakers did not exactly assemble a complete game. After leading by as many as 21 points in the second quarter, they found themselves trailing by 5 points in the third quarter after the Rockets caught fire from the outside.
But James opened the fourth quarter with a driving dunk, part of another postseason tour de force for him: 28 points, 11 rebounds and 9 assists. Davis was terrific, too, finishing with 34 points and 10 rebounds.
But two reserves helped put them in position to seal the win — two experienced players, Davis said, “who aren’t afraid of anything.” They showed up just in time.