New on Sports Illustrated: Rockets turn attention to rested Lakers in Game 1

September 04, 2020 at 05:55AM

James Harden believes the Houston Rockets can improve offensively. But Harden is as pleased as anyone that defense lifted him and the Rockets to the Western Conference semifinals, where they will encounter the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 1 on Friday in the NBA bubble near Orlando.

"Our shot-making ability is going to come, and when it comes, then it's going to be scary because our defense has been very, very solid," Harden told reporters.

The Rockets advanced to the second round on Harden's defensive gem in a 104-102 Game 7 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Wednesday. They prevailed despite a subpar performance by Harden, who managed 17 points on 4-for-15 shooting from the floor and 1-for-9 shooting on 3-pointers. He also had nine assists.

But his block of a 3-point attempt by Oklahoma City's Luguentz Dort with 4.8 seconds left helped seal the win for Houston.

"I've been locked in, obviously, just all year long," Harden told the media following the victory. "Trying to be better on that side of the ball but tonight there was emphasis on it, so I came up with the big block to win the game. I just tried to be engaged in this as much as possible.

"Offensively, I had a rough shooting night, turned the ball over a little bit too much but I had to find a way to impact the game. I came up with a huge block to end the game."

Eric Gordon, who connected on 5 of 9 3-pointers, and Robert Covington scored 21 points apiece to lead the four-seeded Rockets, who shot 39.8 percent from the floor compared with 46.1 percent for the Thunder. Covington also grabbed 10 rebounds. Russell Westbrook collected 20 points and nine rebounds against his former team.

The Western Conference's top seed, the Lakers haven't played since Saturday, when they eliminated the Portland Trail Blazers in a 131-122 victory in Game 5 in their first-round series. Anthony Davis had 43 points and nine rebounds and LeBron James finished with 36 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists for the Lakers, who won four straight contests after dropping the opener.

Davis leads the Lakers in scoring at 29.3 points per game and is shooting 57.3 percent from the floor in the playoffs. He also averages 9.4 rebounds. James is putting up 27.4 points, 10.2 rebounds and a league-high 10.2 assists in the postseason.

Lakers guard Rajon Rondo, who underwent surgery to repair a broken right thumb in July, is expected to return for the series. His thumb has recovered, but back spasms kept him out of the Portland series.

Rondo, who was listed as questionable for Game 1, practiced this week and seemed ready to go.

"We're hopeful to have him in uniform and in the rotation on Friday," said Lakers coach Frank Vogel, according to the Los Angeles Times.

In their last meeting on Aug. 6 during the abbreviated regular season, the Rockets defeated the Lakers 113-97. Harden scored 39 points and recorded 12 assists and Ben McLemore added 20 points.

The Lakers played without James (sore groin). Westbrook (quad injury) and Gordon (ankle) also missed the contest.

--Field Level Media

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