Lakers brace for Harden, Westbrook and small-ball Rockets

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers pushed aside one of the NBA’s best backcourts in the first round.

Here comes another.

James Harden, Russell Westbrook and the Houston Rockets are the opponent when the top-seeded Lakers open the Western Conference semifinals Friday night.

The Rockets’ debut of their small-ball style was a big success when they beat the Lakers 121-111 in Los Angeles on Feb. 6 behind 41 points from Westbrook. Now they have to see if their lineup, all 6-foot-8 or shorter, can beat James, Anthony Davis and the bigger Lakers four times.

“I’ve played against all different types of lineups before since I started playing basketball when I was 9 years old, so there’s nothing strange about it,” James said. “It is what it is and we have to prepare for it. We have to be great every night in order to win and if we’re not we’ll lose. It’s that simple.”

The Lakers have been resting since finishing off the Portland Trail Blazers last Saturday, winning the final four games of the series after dropping Game 1. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum had fueled one of the most potent offenses in the seeding games, but the Lakers smothered the Blazers for much of the series.

Now they have to slow down a team that starts recent MVPs at both guard spots but has to find some energy after a draining first-round series.

The fourth-seeded Rockets outlasted Oklahoma City in seven games, winning the series Wednesday with a 104-102 victory. Harden struggled offensively but made the biggest play of the game with a blocked shot with 4.8 seconds remaining.

It will take defensive plays like that to make up for the size disadvantage the Rockets will be giving up against a Lakers frontcourt in which the 6-8, 250-pound James is the smallest starter.

“There’s advantages and disadvantages and I think they know where our weakness will be. We’ve got to mask that and we’ve got to lesson that blow by the tenacity and the fight and the desire to get it done,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “And they’ll know where our strengths are and we know where our strengths are.”

Westbrook scored 20 points in Game 7, his third game after missing the first four of the series with a right quadriceps injury. He was able to play 34 minutes after being limited to about 25-30 in his first two after returning.

The Thunder will want him on the floor as much as possible after he averaged 38 points on nearly 63% shooting in two appearances against the Lakers this season. Harden scored 29 per game.

No matter how good the guards are, the Rockets’ undersized frontcourt will have to figure out a way to deal with James and Davis, who will have to adjust after playing a Portland team that started two big men together.

“It’s a contrast from the last series but excited about what we hope to accomplish with this series,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said.

Other things to know about the series:

RONDO READY?

The Lakers hope to have guard Rajon Rondo, who hasn’t played at Disney following thumb surgery and then back spasms. Vogel said he had gone through both practices earlier this week and would hopefully be in the rotation Friday.

COVINGTON’S CHANCE

Robert Covington had 21 points and 10 rebounds for the Rockets in Game 7, continuing to play better as the series went along. The forward averaged 20.3 points over the final three games after scoring 8.0 per game over the first four.

LAKERS LINEUP

Vogel wouldn’t say if he would consider a lineup change to match up better with the Rockets. JaVale McGee has been starting at center but the Lakers could easily go with the 6-10 Davis in the middle.

GORDON’S GAME

Eric Gordon also scored 21 points for the Rockets in Game 7, making five 3-pointers. He scored well but shot poorly in the first round, going just 8 for 43 beyond the arc in the first six games.

SEASON SERIES

The Rockets went 2-1 against the Lakers, though James sat out Houston’s 16-point victory at Disney on Aug. 6.

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