The Rockets have now failed to eclipse 100 points in any of their last four games, and they gave away a bad loss against a bad team tonight. Houston could have pulled away at several points in the game, but Kobe and Nick Young kept the Lakers close until they could pull away late for a 98-92 win.
The Rockets missed Dwight badly tonight. The Lakers outscored the Rockets 38-20 in the paint, and there was no one to replace Dwight's inside presence on either end.
Maybe it's time to pump the brakes on James Harden's MVP candidacy. The Rockets have lost both games that Dwight Howard has missed this year, including tonight.
Harden finished with 24 points, 7 assists, and 6 turnovers but couldn't put the team on his back at the end. In addition, James' offense was nonexistent in the first half, and though he still had plenty of energy in his half-court defense, he was sloppy, rotating late and giving up dumb fouls.
In the third quarter, though, he came alive with 13 points, helping the Rockets pull away momentarily, and his transition D was impressive all night - until a critical possession late in the game in which he got pickpocketed and couldn't foul hard enough to prevent a three-point play by Wes Johnson. Basically, he had an inconsistent game when we needed a dominating performance.
Without a doubt, though, three players deserve accolades coming out of this game: Trevor Ariza, Patrick Beverley, and Kostas Papanikolaou.
Ariza did good work on Kobe defensively all night, forcing Kobe to hit circus shots (which he did, quite a bit) while hitting a couple of big shots himself. He finished 4-of-13 from the floor, 3-of-9 from deep for 13 points. It wasn't surprising that he was less efficient, since there was less space on the outside without any legitimate offensive options on the inside. And you knew he had to take more shots without Dwight or Terrence Jones in the lineup.
Pat Beverley (15 points, 3-of-8 from three, 4 rebounds, 2 assists) looked fantastic tonight, haunting Jeremy Lin all over the court and hitting threes from all over the arc - not just the corner. Man, how good did it feel to see Pat mauling Lin?
And what can we say about Big Papa? He had career highs in minutes (34), points (19) and made threes (4 - tied). Once he hit a couple of threes in the first half, you could see his confidence rising. He's had a reeeeaaally rough start to the season shooting the ball, and the fact that he's still had a positive impact just speaks to how he energizes the offense with his penetration and passing. He's not bad on defense either.
With Dwight out with a tender knee (and some other tender things, if Lakers fans are to be believed), Kevin McHale understandably went small, favoring Big Papa (and Trevor Ariza a little) as a stretch 4. Luckily, the Rockets were once again facing a front line without much punch. That didn't punish them nearly as much as the incredible shotmaking of Kobe and Swaggy P, as well as critical turnovers from the Rockets.
Donatas Motiejunas is just about settling into this season as a bench big - forced to start because of injuries, but not really playing starter minutes. He had 7 points and 3 rebounds in 18 minutes, and he's a good offensive weapon working off the catch, either on the perimeter or in the post. As soon as he puts the ball on the floor, though, bad things start happening, The quality of his looks drops significantly, and he becomes a turnover machine.
Tarik Black once again looked like he could basically tread water defensively without contributing much on offense while starting in Dwight's place, and Joey Dorsey, playing his biggest minutes of the year (8), proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he has no business on an NBA team. It's sad to say, but he's been absolutely brutal.
Despite the fact that the formerly 9-2 Rockets lost to the formerly 2-9 Lakers, there were some positive signs to draw from this loss. The end of game execution was brutal, but that comes and goes with lots of teams. The most important takeaway from this game is that the Rockets absolutely need to make a move to address their frontcourt depth. With their two starting bigs hurt, Houston was obviously shorthanded, especially in terms of scoring options.
Next up, the 9-3 Rockets have their big rivalry game against the Mavericks on Saturday, and they can hopefully use all these days off to get healthy.