Defense was optional at Staples Center on Wednesday night, and the Los Angeles Lakers used that to their advantage as they downed the Houston Rockets 120-114 to start their new era in style.
The Lakers leaned on their youngsters, and one of the league’s most promising up-and-coming groups delivered clutch play after clutch play down the stretch.
Post-Kobe era off to a good start in Los Angeles…
Lakers defeat Rockets, 120-114 to give Luke Walton his first win as head coach pic.twitter.com/pfT3PfyHR1
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) October 27, 2016
Jordan Clarkson—who scored two points in the first half—finished with a team-high 25 points on 8-of-12 shooting off the bench, including a three-pointer with 1:47 remaining in regulation to put the Purple and Gold up four.
D’Angelo Russell added 20 points, while Julius Randle was energy personified to the tune of 18 points (9-of-11 shooting), seven rebounds and six assists. No. 2 overall pick Brandon Ingram was limited to 23 minutes off the bench, but he was efficient with nine points on 4-of-6 shooting. The Lakers were also an impressive plus-10 with Ingram on the floor.
The Rockets countered with a statistical performance for the record books from James Harden, who posted 34 points (9-of-19 shooting, 15-of-16 from the line) and a career-high 17 assists in 37 minutes. According to Basketball-Reference.com, Harden joined Chris Paul and Baron Davis as the only players to notch at least 34 points and 17 dimes in a game since 2000.
New additions Eric Gordon (19 PTS, 5 REB) and Ryan Anderson (14 PTS, 6 REB) were both solid in the win, but the story was Harden.
By the time the first quarter came to a close, the Beard had tallied 12 points and nine assists in his new role as Houston’s full-time point guard.
With dimes dropping at a furious pace, the Rockets’ official Twitter account provided a highlight reel of Harden’s silky feeds from the early going:
You don’t want to miss these first quarter highlights! 9 assists for the Beard in Q1. pic.twitter.com/IBR3oSBh3L
— Houston Rockets (@HoustonRockets) October 27, 2016
According to the NBA on ESPN, Harden’s nine first-quarter assists were the most by a Rockets player in the last 15 seasons.
CBSSports.com’s Zach Harper put Harden’s usage in perspective:
Harden legitimately might average 35 potential assists per game. Rondo led league last year with 21.5
— Zach Harper (@talkhoops) October 27, 2016
Not to be outdone, the Lakers rode 12 points from Russell to a fast start as Luke Walton’s young guns kept Houston’s shaky defense off balance throughout the opening frame.
Given the rate at which the Rockets and Lakers kept points flowing, ESPN.com’s Zach Lowe proposed a new way to determine a victor:
First to 150 wins here at Staples.
— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) October 27, 2016
Of course, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that neither side was interested in playing defense.
The Lakers ranked dead last in defensive efficiency last season, according to Basketball-Reference.com, and their young core hasn’t had enough time under Walton’s watch to make a marked improvement on that side of the ball just yet.
The Rockets don’t have an experience excuse, but their new system isn’t exactly conducive to defensive intensity. Houston is conditioned to run-and-gun under head coach Mike D’Antoni, and with pace the utmost priority, the Rockets were rarely in position to make sound stops.
Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle broke down the issues that plagued the Rockets midway through the first half:
Rockets initial defense not the problem. After that, atrocious. Rotations, helping the helper, 2nd shots, all just awful. LA up to 57.1 %.
— Jonathan Feigen (@Jonathan_Feigen) October 27, 2016
The Rockets settled down a bit and took an eight-point lead into the break, but they couldn’t build on that edge, even with Harden in a league of his own.
Specifically, Harden had 28 points and 17 assists by the time the third quarter came to a close. To put that in perspective, there was one game all of last season (John Wall vs. Knicks on Feb. 9) in which a player topped 28 points and 17 dimes.
Ties and lead changes reigned supreme in the fourth quarter with the Lakers displaying superior hustle, and the combined efforts of Clarkson, Randle and Russell gave the Purple and Gold something to smile about a season removed from the worst 82-game stretch in franchise history.
CBS Sports’ Matt Moore pointed to the main thing that separated Wednesday night’s Lakers from last year’s squad coached by Byron Scott:
Big thing here? The Lakers have a plan on both offense and defense, that was absent last year.
— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) October 27, 2016
With Walton’s first win in the bag, the Lakers will look to build on Wednesday’s effort and develop more chemistry on both ends of the floor moving forward.
Their next chance to do so will be on Friday night against the Utah Jazz, who will be a good barometer for a young team that is hoping to climb up the Western Conference standings with a rejuvenated approach.
As for the Rockets, D’Antoni needs to find ways for his group to commit defensively.
Getting Patrick Beverley back from injury in a few weeks will undoubtedly give the whole group a lift, but until then, the Rockets will have to find ways to survive as they push the pace to outrageous degrees.
And if they don’t make some tweaks in a hurry, the Rockets’ schedule could prove unforgiving. Houston is slated to play a home-and-home with the Dallas Mavericks on Friday and Sunday before traveling to Quicken Loans Arena for a meeting with the Cleveland Cavaliers on Nov. 1.
According to Feigen and ESPN.com’s Calvin Watkins, D’Antoni and Anderson both pointed to fatigue as a reason for Houston’s second-half slowdown:
MDA said Rockets ‘lost their legs.’ Cited 1 16 on 3s, 2 FB points in 2nd half. Said that fatigue showed up on both ends.
— Jonathan Feigen (@Jonathan_Feigen) October 27, 2016
Ryan Anderson said the Rockets lost too many one-on-one battles defensively. Tired legs will do that he said. https://t.co/drjug9k5WC
— Calvin Watkins (@calvinwatkins) October 27, 2016
In the winning locker room, Clarkson appeared pleased with the way L.A. is operating under Walton’s tutelage, according to Lakers.com’s Mike Trudell:
Clarkson told us on @SpectrumSN that it’s “just one game,” but felt great. Said Walton changed the vibe, guys are excited about the future.
— Mike Trudell (@LakersReporter) October 27, 2016
“It feels good,” Walton said, per Trudell. “A big part of what we’re trying to do is develop this culture, and learn how to win games.”
On a night when the Lakers assisted on 21 of their 45 made shots, Walton pointed to selflessness as a major reason for the team’s success.
“The reason the offense is clicking right is their willingness to share the ball,” he said, according to the Los Angeles Daily News‘ Mark Medina.
“I think you guys got a glimpse of the kind of team we’re trying to build,” Randle added, per the team’s official Twitter account.
Rockets vs. Lakers: Score, Highlights and Reaction from 2016 Regular Season – Bleacher Report