LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The Houston Rockets may play small, but they don’t use size to determine toughness.
And in Game 1, their style caused big problems for the Los Angeles Lakers.
James Harden scored 36 points and the Rockets ran away from the Lakers 112-97 on Friday night, the second straight round the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference lost its opener.
“It doesn’t matter how tall you are. If you have the heart and you’re a competitor you can be out there on the court,” Harden said.
Russell Westbrook added 24 points, nine rebounds and six assists, and Eric Gordon had 23 points for the Rockets, the No. 4 seed who had just one day of rest after needing seven games to win their first-round series.
They sure didn’t look tired, flying around the court all night to make up for the size disadvantage they face with their small-ball style. They forced 17 turnovers that led to 27 points and played the much bigger Lakers even on the backboards.
“We’re small out there so we’ve got to be scrappy,” Westbrook said. “We’ve got to play hard.”
The Lakers never led after the first quarter and the Rockets blew it open by starting the fourth with a 16-3 run, turning a six-point advantage into a 101-82 cushion on Harden’s basket with 7:15 to play.
Anthony Davis had 25 points and 14 rebounds for the Lakers. LeBron James had 20 points, eight rebounds and seven assists.
He compared the Rockets to the speedy St. Louis Rams’ Super Bowl championship team of two decades ago, nicknamed the “Greatest Show on Turf.”
“There’s no way you can simulate their speed,” James said. “So getting out on the floor and having a Game 1 gives you a good feel for it.”
Game 2 is Sunday.
The Rockets committed to playing small in February, believing they weren’t built to compete with the best of the West playing conventionally. They debuted their style with a victory over the Lakers in Los Angeles and proved again why it they think it can work.
They were constantly on the move defensively, deflecting passes and corralling loose balls.
It’s the kind of plays they have to make while staring a lineup that has nobody taller than 6-foot-8 Robert Covington. They opened the game with the 6-3 Gordon guarding the 6-8 James and Harden defending 7-footer JaVale McGee.
The Lakers were playing for only the second time in 11 days. They beat Portland in Game 4 of their series on Aug. 24, but then didn’t play again until five nights later after the playoffs were delayed as players and the NBA committed to finishing the season following the Milwaukee Bucks’ decision not to play a game as a statement against racial injustice.
They didn’t appear to have any rust at the start, breaking to a 7-0 lead. But the rest of the first quarter was tight from there, Houston leading 29-28 after Rajon Rondo’s final shot came after the buzzer. The Lakers never led again.
“The Game 7 versus a team with rest — I’ve always felt that the team that played a Game 7 has a slight advantage,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “But you can’t look at that as any type of excuse. We’re not an excuse team. We’ve got to come out and compete to win a game. This one’s behind us. We lost it. Got to move on to Game 2.”
The Lakers are one of sports’ marquee franchises, their 16 championships one behind Boston for most in NBA history. But they are in the second round for the first time since 2012, a month before James won his first NBA title and Davis was drafted with the No. 1 pick.
And it was a rocky start to it, just as it was when the Blazers beat them in Game 1 of the last round.
Gordon scored Houston’s first nine points of the fourth quarter before Westbrook’s 3-pointer extended the lead to 97-82 with 9:07 remaining. Gordon then scored again before Harden’s basket while Davis was trying to draw a charge ended the run.
Harden made a 3-pointer for the last basket of the half and a 63-55 lead, giving him 25 points in the half.