The image of LeBron James running roughshod with the ball in his hands and Anthony Davis scoring inside the paint and from the perimeter with equal aplomb can render secondary other important facts.
For example: the Los Angeles Lakers concluded the regular season rated third in defensive efficiency.
But when the Lakers string together a series of defensive possessions where their rotations are stifling and their rim protection sufficient, their defensive might comes into clearer focus.
The Lakers haven’t been a defensive juggernaut for the balance of their Western Conference semifinal series against the Houston Rockets. However, when they conjure the requisite effort, the results are irrefutable and — for the Rockets — seemingly impossible to counter and overcome.
The Lakers take a 2-1 series lead into Game 4 on Thursday near Orlando thanks largely to the defensive acumen they flashed in the fourth quarter in Games 2 and 3.
The Rockets have certainly enjoyed the fruits of their offensive skill for lengthy stretches this series, but momentum has turned in the fourth quarter in each of the past two games. And the Lakers’ defense has dictated the terms.
“That’s what we hang our hats on,” said James, who recorded four blocked shots in Game 3.
“Since training camp, coach (Frank) Vogel and the coaching staff came in and said we want to be one of the best defensive teams if not the best in the league. And that’s where it starts for us.”
Trailing 92-90 entering the final period in Game 2, the Lakers held Houston to 2-for-8 shooting and forced two turnovers during a 14-4 run to the lead.
With the score knotted at 82 at the close of the third quarter in Game 3, the Rockets missed 4 of 6 shot attempts while committing three turnovers during the decisive stretch that fueled a 17-5 Lakers rally.
Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said fatigue undermined the Rockets’ late-game performance, but the Lakers deserve full credit for harassing the Rockets into miscues and errant shot attempts.
“That fourth quarter, turned the ball over, not getting great shots (and the Lakers) coming down getting transition points, that was the game right there,” said Rockets guard James Harden, who produced 33 points plus nine assists despite facing a steady stream of multiple defenders.
“Our pace (was poor). We weren’t in attack mode. They did a good job of trapping and we didn’t make them pay for it.”
The impressive form Houston flashed in the series opener suddenly seems a hazy memory, with the Lakers utilizing a smaller lineup in the second half of Game 2 to control the action on both ends.
The Lakers will have an opportunity to take a stranglehold on the series in Game 4, but they will need to do more of what placed them in this enviable position.
The Rockets did erase a 21-point deficit with a 41-point third quarter in Game 2. Houston is capable of squaring this series if the Lakers ease off the throttle with any hint of complacency.
“Every time you lose a game in the playoffs your group is super desperate, and if you lose two in a row it just heightens even more,” Vogel said. “We know they’re going to come out with the backs against the wall mindset and really execute and play extremely hard on both ends of the floor, and play with desperation. We’ve got to make sure that we match that.
“What’s happened so far in the series is behind us. They’ve got an offense and some players on their team and a system that will never allow us to be comfortable. So we’ve got to bring the same desperation.”