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Playoffs 2020

NBA Playoffs 2020: James Harden and Russell Westbrook star as small-ball Rockets upset Lakers in Game 1

Just a couple of days after sneaking past the Oklahoma City Thunder with a 104-102 Game 7 victory, the Rockets pulled a fast one on the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers by defeating them 112-97 in Game 1 of their Conference Semifinals series.

The Lakers, who had five days to prepare for this contest, played from behind for the entirety of the final three quarters as the game's three lead changes all occurred in the first quarter itself.

While Los Angeles struggled to find their rhythm after their long break, Houston had no such issues given their short turnaround. Their All-Star duo of James Harden and Russell Westbrook led from the front in this Game 1 win against the Conference's top seed.

That said, here are the biggest takeaways from this game:

Game 1 was the Harden, Westbrook show

After a rough Game 7 against the Thunder where he went for 17 points on 4-of-15 shooting from the field, James Harden found his touch once again in Game 1 against the Lakers.

In 34 minutes, he registered his 6th 30-point game of this postseason on 60% shooting from the field while recording five assists, two rebounds, and two steals

This is the 39th time this season (including playoffs) that Harden has scored more points than the minutes he has played - second, in the shot clock era, only to Wilt Chamberlain's 45 in the 1961-62 season.

His backcourt mate Russell Westbrook finished with 24 points, nine rebounds, and six assists. More importantly, he was on the floor when the Rockets pulled off a run to create some distance which results his +/- of 15 - second-best among the Rockets' starters.

He was on the floor when the Rockets started the second quarter with a 7-1 run. They never let go of that advantage for the rest of the game, keeping the Lakers at bay. He was also on the floor when Houston began the fourth period with a 12-3 run, part of a larger 16-5 run.

LeBron, Lakers struggle offensively

Just like the Rockets-Lakers contest from back in February at the Staples Center, Anthony Davis stuffed the shat sheet in this one. In 37 minutes, he finished with 25 points, 14 rebounds, three steals, and three blocks on 10-of-16 shooting from the field.

However, no other Lakers had a great game. They were either struggling to knock down shots or, in Alex Caruso's case (14 points), battling foul trouble. Among the rest, LeBron James was the top contributor with 20 points, eight rebounds, and seven assists. He had plenty of highlight plays in this game, the most noteworthy one was this block on Westbrook that was followed up by an and-1 play:

Despite the highlights, James struggled to get going when it mattered - in the fourth quarter. As the Rockets made their run in the fourth, which eventually sealed the game, James went scoreless in nine minutes.

Based off averages from the regular season and the first round of the playoffs, the Lakers are among the top 3 teams in scoring categories such as poitns off opponent's turnovers, points in the paint, and fastbreak points.

But, in this game, they had only their 18 fastbreak points for as they were held to subpar numbers in the other categories. They scored only 12 points off the Rockets 16 turnovers while they allowed 27 points off their 17 turnovers. Despite the size mismatch, the Rockets outscored the Lakers in the paint 42-40.

Their 3-point shooting was never really among their strengths and that showed in this game as they shot 11-of-38 from beyond the arc (28.9%) while giving up 14 3-pointers at a clip of 35.9%.

Gordon leads supporting cast as Rockets' defense shines

Apart from the Harden-Westbrook combo, Eric Gordon was the top-scorer with 23 points. Austin Rivers had 10 off the bench. PJ Tucker, playing 36 minutes, had the game's best +/- with 19.

Robert Covington (6p/7r/4s/2a/1b) and Jeff Green (7p/4r/3s/2a) contributed across the board.

Holding the Lakers to just 97 points and restricting their strong points on offense, the Rockets proved why they were the best defensive team in the playoffs so far.

Up next?

The Lakers also lost Game 1 in the first-round series against the Portland Trail Blazers.

Can they bounce-back against the Rockets just like they did against the Trail Blazers or will the Rockets continue to dictate the tempo and pace in the series with their small-ball play?

Game 2 is in a couple of days on Sunday, September 6 at 8:30 p.m. ET.

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