At the midway point of the NBA season, the Los Angeles Lakers stand head and shoulders above all the other teams in the Western Conference. But not by much. After playing 53 of a 82-game regular season, the Lakers have posted a 41-12 mark, something that has gotten the fan base excited and expecting a possible a title run somewhere down the line at the conclusion of the postseason.
That may very well happen. But along the way to that coveted championship that Lebron James, Anthony Davis and the rest of the Lakers are craving for to bring to the city of Los Angeles, there is this thing called parity that has seemed to have gripped the Western Conference. In the Pacific Division, the Lakers have the Clippers with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George breathing down their necks.
The Denver Nuggets, Utah Jazz and the Oklahoma City Thunder have all clogged up the Northwest Division in the Western Conference. Then there is the Houston Rockets. The Rockets, behind James Harden and his infamous beard, are current rulers of the Southwest Division. The Rockets, however, are more than just a one-man show, even though Harden leads the league in scoring, and can drop 50 points on a dime just about anytime he wants.
Any one heard of a guy named Russell Westbrook? While taking a backseat to Harden most of the season during his first year in a Houston uniform, Westbrook has the ability to reminds folks that he still has the juice that has made him one of the more dynamic players to play in the NBA. With that in mind, Westbrook dropped 41 points on the Lakers back on Feb. 6 during a Houston 121-111 win against Los Angeles at Staples Center.
“We obviously need to do better with him,” Lakers guard Danny Green said after the game. “The game plan wasn’t that simple but they all did a good job of reading it, dissecting it and attacking it the right way. Russ got hot, hit some shots and he attacked the rim. He got some extra-chance points, rebounds, kick-outs, swing-swing and he hit some and made shots.”
What’s the big deal about a regular season game in February? It may not matter or have very little significance when it comes to the postseason. However, that game could be a playoff precursor for both teams. The Lakers have their dynamic duo in James and Davis. The Rockets counter with their own superstar tandem in Harden and Westbrook.
“We were doubling James [Harden] and they were making three-pointers,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “Russell [Westbrook] for the most part, was hitting difficult two-pointers. Again, when the double teams are just leading to three-pointers, you just have to pick your poison and for the most part [Westbrook] was scoring over length. We were putting bigger defenders on him, but you have to tip your hat to him– he was finishing, making mid-range shots and getting to the basket. So, his [Westbrook] single coverage, James’ penalizing and punishing the double teams by hitting shooters and their shooters punishing us by making those three-pointers was just too much for us.”
The Harden and Westbrook bookend makes the challenge for the Western Conference title a little bit more intriguing and even more formidable for the Lakers. How? Well, if and whenever Harden has a rare off-shooting night like he did against the Lakers in which he scored just 14 points off of 10 shot attempts, the Rockets can depend on the mercurial athleticism of Westbrook to take over a game the way he did against Los Angeles.
“Like I told you before, if it’s me on a one-on-one, I just get to my spot and pick what I want to do,” said Westbrook, who made 17 of his 28 field goal attempts against the Lakers. ” That’s it. It’s that simple. I don’t make the game hard for myself, just drive and kick it and find somebody to score.”
What makes the Rockets a team to watch out for is that Houston, with the exception of center Tyson Chandler, has sort of taken on the aura of Golden State’s small-ball approach with their roster. This is in stark contrast to the Lakers, who have probably the longest team in the NBA when you consider the size and length of James, Davis, JaVale McGee, and Dwight Howard.
So what is the key to possibly slowing down Harden, Westbrook and their crew?
“You’ve just got to fly around,” said James. “You’ve got to communicate. James [Harden] is going to create a lot of eyes on him because of what he’s doing this year as far as scoring the basketball. Russ[ell Westbrook] definitely did what he was capable of doing. We’ve seen it a lot throughout his career. He was wonderful tonight.”
Westbrook, the league’s regular season MVP in 2017, is certainly the perfect right-hand compliment to Harden. With Harden being on lockdown by the Lakers’ defense, Westbrook took the onus and this game into his own hands, especially in the third quarter when he erupted for 16 points to offset Davis scoring 13 points in the period.
Speaking of Harden, it’s hard to imagine the Rockets walking into the Lakers’ home arena and pulling off a double-digit win against the top team in the Western Conference when the NBA’s leading scorer at 35 points per game is held to 21 points below his average. But it happened. That’s just how the league works, James said.
“You can’t look at it like that because we’re all NBA players. It means absolutely nothing,” said James. “It’s not frustrating. We want to continue to get better. We don’t like to lose, especially in our home building, but there’s nothing frustrating about our effort.”