With LeBron James out, Lakers experiment in loss to Rockets

Just as halftime was about to expire, Dwight Howard took a three-pointer and sank it. Then he shuffled to his right and sank another from the top of the arc.

During the regular season, the Lakers joked about Howard being a three-point specialist given that his shooting percentage was so high. After all, at one point in the season, Howard had made all of the threes he’d taken (1 out of 1).

Howard didn’t get much playing time in Thursday night’s game against the Houston Rockets. The Lakers decided to use smaller lineups against a Rockets team that likes to do the same. They even made starting center JaVale McGee inactive.

At center they played Anthony Davis, who typically prefers to play power forward. They started Kyle Kuzma at power forward, Danny Green at small forward, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope at shooting guard and Quinn Cook at point guard.

The Lakers fell to the Rockets, 113-97. Rockets star James Harden led all scorers with 39 points, playing 35 minutes. Kuzma led the Lakers with 21 points, making eight of his 16 shots, with five rebounds, three assists and two blocks. Davis played 30 minutes and scored 17 points with 12 rebounds and seven turnovers.

Lakers vs. Houston Rockets highlights.

It was a night for experimentation given what players the Lakers had available.

“I don’t think this is going to be a long-term solution for us,” Lakers Coach Frank Vogel said before the game. “It’s something that after we played them last time I wanted to play around with. Really doesn’t have anything to do with how we played the last couple of games offensively. It’s just something that… you collect sample sizes in the regular season for things that work and don’t work against certain matchups and this is something I felt like I wanted to do.”

LeBron James missed the game due to groin soreness in the same area that caused him to miss five weeks during the 2018-19 season. Vogel called it an area of concern. Alex Caruso missed the game with a sore neck.

Vogel went 11 players deep into his rotation with Dion Waiters, Markieff Morris, Talen Horton-Tucker, Jared Dudley, J.R. Smith and Howard coming off the bench.

The Rockets were missing point guard Russell Westbrook due to a sore hamstring but quickly pulled ahead of the Lakers. They had a seven-point lead after one quarter and grew it to a nine-point lead by halftime. For most of the second half, though, the Lakers trailed by double digits.

With the loss, the Lakers fell to 51-16, but they clinched the top seed in the Western Conference on Monday, so the stakes were low. For the Rockets, the stakes were a bit higher. Houston started the night sixth in the west, but the win gave them the same record as the Utah Jazz, who are currently the fourth seed.

For the Lakers, Thursday night’s intrigue remained more in the identity of their first-round opponent. The Portland Trail Blazers beat the Denver Nuggets and are one game behind the Memphis Grizzlies, who entered the bubble as the eighth seed but have lost all four of their games since. The Phoenix Suns, remained undefeated on Thursday with a win over the Pacers, putting them just one game behind Portland.

Their own game mattered little.

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