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Game Report: Lakers (3-3) defeat Rockets (4-2) 99 – 98

steve-blake-game-winner

Steve Blake nailed the game-winning three-pointer on the Lakers’ final possession, and the resulting Rockets’ loss left Houston fans acutely aware that when it comes to Dwight Howard, you have to take the bad with the good.

Blake revealed post-game that he had said a prayer coming out of the Lakers’ time-out with 3.4 seconds remaining, but he certainly didn’t throw up a prayer on the ensuing play. While his catch-and-shoot three-pointer off Jodie Meeks’ inbounds pass may have been over a charging Howard’s outstretched hand, the fact is that it was too little coverage too late, leaving Blake enough time to take dead aim and deliver the win.

The game-winning inbounds pass from Meeks worked out far better than his effort seconds earlier. With 10.9 seconds remaining, Meeks attempted to inbound the ball cross-court to Steve Nash, but Nash had already cut in a different direction. Wesley Johnson had to hustle to track down the loose ball before it went out of bounds, avoiding what would likely have been a game-ending turnover.

The reason that the Lakers were in a position to win the game with their last shot is because coach Mike D’Antoni showed no shame down the stretch in employing Hack-A-Howard, or – as I prefer to call it – Slight-A-Dwight. And it was Howard’s predictable inability to convert at the free throw line that enabled the Lakers to overtake the Rockets in the game’s final minutes.

The Lakers’ deepest hole of the game occurred when they fell behind 97-91 with just 2:40 remaining, but they then closed the game on an 8-1 run, with the offense coming from Nash, who hit two free throws, Meeks, who hit a three-pointer on a pass from Nash, and Blake, who hit the game winning three-pointer on a pass from Meeks.

More importantly, the Lakers were able to hold Houston to just one point over the final 2:40, as Houston was 0-4 from the field during that stretch, and Howard was just 1-6 (17%) from the line under the bright lights of clutch time on national television.

For the game, Howard shot just 5-16 (31%) from the free throw line.

D’Antoni made two changes to his starting line-up tonight, inserting Chris Kaman for Shawne Williams after a five-game stretch with Williams as the starting power forward, and re-inserting Nick Young after a two-game experiment with Xavier Henry as the starting small forward.

Upon learning the news, Young quipped, “So much for getting Sixth Man of the Year!”

The starting line-up, which also included Nash, Blake, and Pau Gasol, clicked immediately and opened up a 23-8 lead. And the second unit – consisting of Jordan Hill, Jordan Farmar, Johnson, Henry, and Meeks – also played well, allowing the Lakers to take a 64-50 lead into half-time.

The biggest key to the half-time lead was that the Lakers hit a whopping 11 of 14 (79%) first-half three-point attempts, including each of their last seven attempts of the half.

But the second half was another story altogether.

The Lakers, predictably, began to cool off, but Houston’s strategy of driving to the hoop continued to result in the Rockets – especially James Harden – getting to the line, and by the time the third quarter was over the Lakers’ lead had been trimmed to 81-77.

The two teams’ bread-and-butter plays for the night were evident in the final box score. The Lakers, despite cooling off in the second half, shot a remarkable 16-35 (46%) from beyond the arc for 48 points, whereas the Rockets managed to shoot just 7-27 (26%) from distance, for 21 points. On the other hand, the Rockets’ strategy of attacking the hoop got them to the line for 52 attempts, where they converted 33 times (64%), whereas the Lakers shot just 11-15 (73%) from the charity stripe.

The biggest problem for the Lakers tonight was likely not their inability to get to the free throw line, but their 24 turnovers. It’s not very often that a team turns the ball over 24 times and walks away with a win – in that regard, the Lakers should consider themselves fortunate to be back at 0.500.

Meeks had a very nice game for the Lakers, scoring 18 points (on just nine shots) to lead the team in scoring, and Farmar played well, too, scoring 11 points and dishing out seven assists in just 20 minutes.

Gasol did a great job of limiting Howard to 15 points and 14 rebounds, but he struggled mightily on offense – perhaps because he had to expend himself so much on defense – recording just two points on 1-10 shooting, and not getting to the line once. Steve Nash started the game by hitting his first two shots, but ended the night shooting a disappointing 3-11, although he did look comfortable orchestrating the Lakers’ offense.

Nash reached another milestone tonight – his 12 points moved him past the still-active Jason Terry for 74th place in career points, with 17,323.

It’s worth noting that all 10 Lakers who saw the floor tonight scored at least two points and grabbed at least one rebound, and that nine of the Lakers – all but Johnson – managed to record an assist. In other words, it was another well-balanced attack from a deep D’Antoni rotation.

Interestingly, although D’Antoni had a clear five-man starting unit and a clear five-man bench unit, he finished the game with a combination of both. For the final 5:56, D’Antoni went small and played Gasol, Johnson, Meeks, Blake, and Nash for all but 87 seconds, when Kaman replaced Johnson, and the final one second, when Kaman replaced Nash.

So, although D’Antoni went big for most of the game to counter the size of Howard and Omer Asik, he went small at the end, likely because his Slight-A-Dwight strategy did not require much in the way of an interior defense.

Shawne Williams, who had started the first five games for the Lakers, did not play at all tonight.

While it’s tempting to think that Williams may now fall out of D’Antoni’s rotation entirely, keep in mind that Nash is unlikely to play Friday night in New Orleans, which will be the second game of a back-to-back. It’s possible that D’Antoni could replace Nash with Williams, given his versatile roster.

Friday night’s game will be a real test of character for the Lakers. Can they bear down and sweep their back-to-back set, or will the elation of Thursday’s dramatic win have them feeling complacent when they face the Pelicans?

A win tomorrow would send a strong signal to the league that these Lakers are not a team to be taken lightly.

Lakers’ Player of the Game

There is no doubt that tonight’s player of the game was Steve Blake.

Not only did Blake hit the game-winning shot in dramatic fashion, but he played very well over all, scoring 14 points (5-10 FG, 4-6 3PT), grabbing three rebounds and dishing out two assists.

But, perhaps most remarkable of all on a night when the Lakers turned the ball over 24 times was that the one player who did not turn the ball over was also the player who led the team in minutes played, with 34 – Steve Blake.

Next Game

Friday, November 8, at 5:00 p.m. PST at the New Orleans Pelicans

This is an article by Craig Lawson. You can follow him on Twitter: @stevenashchroni

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Lakers @ Rockets Instant Recap – 11/07/13

VIDEO: See what Steve Blake’s game-winner looked and sounded like from up in the stands