Why Lakers’ LeBron James Can’t Solve This Houston Rockets Defender

LeBron James, Lakers.

Getty LeBron James, Lakers.

While much has been made of the Lakers’ potential machinations when it comes to big man Anthony Davis, who has struggled when defended by the Rockets’ P.J. Tucker and could move to be the starting center for Game 2, the job that the Rockets did on LeBron James should not be overlooked. After averaging 34.7 points in the final three games of the Portland series, James was held to 20 points on 7-for-15 shooting in Game 1 of the conference semifinals.

Much of that credit should go to Rockets guard Eric Gordon, who is just 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds, giving up significant size to James, who stands 6-foot-9 and weighs 250 pounds. Yet Gordon was able to keep James out of the paint and out of his comfort zone for much of the game.

Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni praised the job Gordon did but certainly did not want to say anything that might spark a James explosion in Game 2. Back in January, after all, James did go for 31 points and 12 assists in a win in Houston.

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“I’d be a little careful, you know, LeBron is LeBron,” D’Antoni said on Saturday after Rockets practice. “What Eric has that we like is strength. Just being able to hold his ground. He’s a terrific defender against everybody. He’s one of our better defenders. Only your best defenders in the league can do that and he definitely is one of those guys.”

Eric Gordon: ‘You Have To Take Away Something’

Gordon guarded James for a little more than 21 possessions in Game 1, according to NBA Stats. James scored just 3 points on those possessions, with 3 assists and 3 turnovers. The Lakers offense as a whole was not bad with Gordon on James—it scored 24 points—but James was not much of a factor.

Gordon said the important thing when guarding James was to at least take away one of his strengths, and for Gordon that is his drives to the rim. James might make perimeter jumpers or fuel the offense with assists, but at least he will not pull apart the defense with easy shots in the paint and his ability to draw fouls.

“With me, my concepts are the same with a lot of scorers,” Gordon said in a press conference on Saturday. “I don’t like when guys, scorers, have that chance where they’re knocking down shots, driving to the basket. I’d rather take away drives more than ever. When they’re getting to the free-throw line, getting into the lane and then knocking down shots, that’s when it’s almost impossible to stop a player. So that’s why I like to be physical because I have to take away something. You have to take away something from great players.”

James attempted only five free-throws in Game 1.

LeBron James Praised Rockets’ Speed

After Game 1, James praised the Rockets’ team speed, especially on the defensive end, where they can swarm the ball and disrupt passing lanes. The Rockets are tied as the top team in the playoffs with an average of 13.8 deflections and had 11 deflections on Friday night.

The Lakers averaged 26.0 assists per game in the first round against the Trail Blazers but had only 18 assists against Houston. The Rockets made it difficult to pass the ball, particularly for James, whose 7 assists were tied for his fewest in the postseason.

“You don’t want to get to the point,” Gordon said, “where he is getting everybody involved and knocking down shots and the next thing you know—you can’t give him the best of both worlds where he is getting a lot of assists by getting guys going and also scoring.

“We just been very aggressive like we were (Friday). We just don’t want to make things easy for him, each possession as you come down, you just got to be physical when need be. Just take your time and be very aggressive also.”

READ NEXT: This Rockets Defensive Number Is a Problem for Anthony Davis 

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