LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Lakers fell to their third straight loss to the Houston Rockets 112-95 on Sunday night behind a game-high 31 points from James Harden.
Kobe Bryant led the way for the Lakers in the first quarter dishing out seven assists while Julius Randle racked up eight points and five rebounds that helped the team carry a 36-32 lead into the second quarter. Los Angeles had 11 assists on 14 made field goals shooting an eye-popping 73.7 percent from the field in the opening period.
The Rockets reclaimed the lead in the second quarter behind Harden scoring nine of his first-half high 21 points that gave his team a 60-57 lead at the half. Lou Williams kept the Lakers within striking distance with eight of his team-high 15 points in the first half. Both teams shot the ball well in the first half with Los Angeles hitting at a 56.4 percent clip, and Houston was at 51.1 percent.
After a back-and-forth first half, things quickly got out of hand in the third quarter with a 17-4 by the Rockets with three 3-pointers from Harden during that stretch that helped them build a 17-point advantage. Houston maintained a healthy double-digit lead throughout the remainder of the game.
“They turned it up a notch and we couldn’t respond to it,” Lakers head coach Byron Scott said.” That’s simply it. They just got to be more aggressive period.”
Williams scored a team-high 20 points in the loss. Randle notched his 14th double-double of the season with 12 points and 11 rebounds. Bryant finished with five points and a team-high nine assists. D’Angelo Russell chipped in with 12 points and five assists.
This marks the Lakers sixth straight loss at Staples Center this season. Here are five things we learned on Sunday night:
Bryant in facilitator mode
Despite being the second game of a back-to-back, the 37-year-old gave it go against the Rockets with plenty of uncertainty of how long he could play.
Bryant took the floor for just 24 minutes scoring five points on 2-of-5 shooting with a team-high nine assists. He began the game in facilitator mode taking the floor for the entire first quarter dishing out seven assists, which included passing Jerry West for the second-most assists in Lakers history, behind Magic Johnson.
“It means a lot,” Bryant said. “It’s an accomplishment that I’m really, really proud of.”
His head coach noted that this historic feat exemplifies something more than just being known as a scorer.
“He’s not just a scorer,” Scott said of Bryant’s historic achievement. “It shows that he can do other things and has for over 20 years.”
Bryant was on the bench for the whole second quarter but played the entire third quarter dishing out two more assists. However, his night was finished as he sat out the fourth quarter with the game out of hand.
It has been one of the most difficult seasons of Bryant’s career as he has struggled to stay on the court because of his health. His body hasn’t responded the way it typically has over the past, but that’s not surprising given it’s his 20th season.
All in all, this is going to be a constant issue for Bryant as the season wears on playing through minor ailments, and sitting out games from time to time to let his body recuperate.
Howard still loves playing the Lakers
Prior to Sunday night, Howard has had much personal success on the court averaging 17.3 points, 12.3 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks in 21 meetings. This continued as he notched his 20th double-double of the season scoring 14 points with 15 rebounds and three blocks in the win.
He had a productive first quarter notching seven points, which he added to in the second quarter almost posting a double-double at the half 12 points and seven rebounds. In the third quarter, he did his most damage defensively hauling in a quarter-best eight rebounds with three blocks.
“We attacked the basket,” Howard said. “When we attack, we make things happen. We have to continue to do a better job of attacking and putting teams on their heels.”
Howard has seen a bit of a decline on the offensive end this season, but he did become the fourth youngest player in NBA history to reach 15,000 points and 10,000 rebounds in his career. Even at 30 years old, Howard is still one of the league’s top rebounders and defensive big men.
There will always be a bit of bitterness from Lakers’ fans toward Howard with how he left the team, which makes each visit to Staples Center that much more interesting and entertaining.
Randle taking advantage of opportunity
In the absence of Larry Nance Jr. (sore right knee) on Sunday, the 21-year-old saw a return to the starting lineup for the first since early December and he notched his 14th double-double of the season with 12 points and 11 rebounds.
Prior to his brief promotion to the starting lineup against the Rockets, Randle had averaged a near double-double with 11.7 points and 9.2 rebounds in 20 games played.
Randle was productive in the first half almost notching a double-double with 12 points and eight rebounds with much of it coming in the first quarter. He did most of his damage around the basket and was the recipient of several of Bryant’s passes in the opening period.
Scott was encouraged by the second-year forward’s play in the first half, but it may have come at a cost with a possible broken nose that will be checked tomorrow.
“I thought the first half he played well,” Scott said. “Then he took a real good shot in the third quarter and started to complain about his nose. We will get that checked, but I thought he played really well in the first half.
Scott also added that Nance Jr. still remains the starter despite Randle’ strong performance against the Rockets. Although the MRI on Nance’s right knee showed no structural damage to the area, there is still uncertainty as to what is causing the pain that begun in the team’s loss on Thursday to the Golden State Warriors.
This will more than likely lead to more nights in the starting lineup for Randle in the coming few games with Nance still having problems with his knee.
The Beard leads the way
Entering Sunday’s game against the Lakers, Harden was the league’s second-leading scorer with 27.6 points per game, and that continued by pouring in a game-high 31 points.
The 26-year-old did most of his offensive damage in the first half scoring 21 points and did the rest of his scoring in the third quarter knocking down three of his four 3-pointers on the night.
“We had to lock them in on the defensive end,” Harden said. “We knew we could get anything we wanted on the offensive end.”
Over the last few seasons, Harden has become the best shooting guard in the NBA because of his ability to score in many different facets of the game. He has been the best in the league at that getting to the free throw this season taking a league-best 412 free throws through the first 41 games, which is the highest total through the first half of the season by a guard dating back to the 2006-07 season.
He has also become a lethal threat from beyond the arc currently four short of 1,000 career three-pointers a feat that will also make him the sixth-fastest player to reach that mark as well as being the youngest. He has already this season become the seventh player dating back to the 1985 NBA Draft to record at least 10,000 points, 2,000 rebounds, 2,000 assists, 700 steals, and 200 blocks in 500 or fewer games.
In short, Harden is one of the game’s best offensive talents, and a must watch on any given night because of that sole reason.
Entering Sunday’s contest, Los Angeles ranked as the worst team in the league in points allowed in the paint to opponents averaging 46.3 points through the first 42 games played.
This trend continued against the Rockets allowing 70 points. Houston continually got into the paint with their big men without any significant trouble defensively outside the occasional presence of Roy Hibbert. In short, Sunday just highlighted what’s been the team’s biggest issues on that end of the floor.
“We can’t afford to give team’s 70 points in the paint,” Scott said. “We got to value every possession.”
Their inability to defend has been a prominent obstacle over the last several seasons and the struggles in that area have arisen more than ever before this year. It’s certainly something the front office needs to drastically address in the 0ffseason.