They finally battled, finally playing with the energy and intensity that is necessary to have a chance against the Lakers. And it was enough to give themselves a chance to steal a win they had spent the night too dejected and dispirited to chase.
The Lakers finally put the win away in the final minute, sending the Rockets to a 110-100 loss Thursday at AdventHealth Arena in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., and a 3-1 hole in the series.
They had come back from a 23-point deficit to within five but could get no closer. Lakers guard Alex Caruso put in a corner 3 to halt a 23-4 Rockets surge. After Eric Gordon came up empty on a drive, the Lakers finally spiked home an exclamation point, with LeBron James taking an alley-oop pass from Rajon Rondo off the backboard.
The Rockets, however, knew they did not lose in the final minute. Not even close. They lost when it took most of the game to get going.
“We got down on ourselves a little bit,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “They have been battling uphill the last three or four days. We let go of the rope a little bit.
“Just a lack of spirit. Just seems like we got down and lost our way a little bit.”
Asked why the Rockets were so flat for so long, James Harden said simply, “Good question.”
Pressed again, he looked ahead to Saturday, knowing that only hope could replace the disappointment of coming up short not in the final minute, but in effort and competitiveness until the mountain of a Lakers’ lead was too large to climb.
“There’s nothing we can do about it now,” he said. “Just got to get ready for Game 5. Just got to carry over to Game 5.”
The Lakers’ defense had squeezed the life from the Rockets’ offense from the start, switching to a small lineup with their centers JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard never leaving the bench, and then double-teaming Harden until he never found a rhythm. He made just 2 of 11 shots, missing 3s and struggling to finish over the Lakers defenders protecting the rim.
Forced to drive so often, Harden lived at the line, finishing with 21 points and 10 assists. But he mostly had to give up the ball early in possessions when double teamed, saying “Just got to execute better.”
Rockets guard Russell Westbrook, however, seemed to suggest greater improvements are needed. He was not specific when he called for a willingness to “sacrifice,” but even that seemed to go back to playing harder for much longer.
“There should have been a sense of urgency,” Westbrook said of the lack of intensity early. “But we fought (in the fourth quarter), which is good. It’s going to take a lot of effort. It’s going to take everyone being comfortable in their role and making sure we all understand we have to sacrifice some of the things we may love to do. We have to scramble. That gives us the best chance to win games.
“I’m not the coach to make that decision (about sacrifices needed.) I can’t speak for anybody. Just for myself, just making sure I do what I need to do, bringing my energy and effort, competing on a very, very high level for 48 minutes is what I need to … do.”
With Harden misfiring, the Rockets struggled to take advantage of the attention paid to him, especially in the first half when they made just 3 of 13 3-pointers.
When they began the second half seeming more dejected than determined, the Lakers piled up layups and offensive rebounds and built a 22-point lead with James attempting just two shots in the quarter.
The Rockets, however, had found a bit of an offensive spark. There was less than eight minutes remaining, with the Lakers’ lead having swelled to 23, when the Rockets made a sudden move, holding the Lakers to four points in almost seven minutes. That only showed what was lacking and now needed to climb out of a 3-1 hole nearly as imposing as a 23-point fourth-quarter deficit.
“That’s what it’s going to take for 48 minutes to beat these guys,” D’Antoni said. “Whether you make mistakes or not, it’s how hard you’re doing those things.
“I don’t have a doubt these guys will be ready to come back and play hard like they did in the fourth quarter. We’ll lay it all on the line, and we’ll go from there.”