Chris Paul and the Houston Rockets square off with LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers on Thursday. Photo by John G. Mabanglo/Shutterstock
HOUSTON -- Somewhat reticent to commit long term to the lineup alteration initiated on Tuesday, Houston Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni was provided every reason to stick to the changes moving forward after an unexpectedly effective performance from a beleaguered bench.
The Rockets (12-14) had three reserves score in double figures on Tuesday in their 111-104 win over the Portland Trail Blazers, the first time for that achievement this season. D'Antoni ran the risk of further hamstringing his bench when he inserted guard Eric Gordon into the starting lineup in place of forward James Ennis.
Instead, Gerald Green (13 points), Danuel House (12) and Nene (10) combined for 35 points to help carry the Rockets to a needed victory.
Ennis reaggravated a right hamstring injury in the win and could be sidelined for up to two weeks for the Rockets, who will host the Los Angeles Lakers on Thursday at Toyota Center. His absence is just the latest challenge facing the Rockets, who recently moved away from the aggressive switching principles that defined their marked defensive improvement last season.
"We're trying not to switch (everything)," D'Antoni said. "There will be times when a guy gets hit and he can't get through and you have to switch, but now it's on a have-to basis, not a we-want-to basis. We'll try to keep a big guy at home, try to keep him where he rebounds more."
The Lakers (17-10) have won six of seven games while climbing to fourth in the Western Conference. Their defense, a glaring concern earlier in the season, has improved drastically, with the Lakers posting a 101.4 defensive rating during their recent run of success, third in the NBA behind the Indiana Pacers and the Oklahoma City Thunder during that seven-game stretch.
Offensively, the Lakers appear to have unearthed a capable running mate for LeBron James. Second-year forward Kyle Kuzma is averaging 21.9 points (with a 58.3 field goal percentage), 8.9 rebounds and 3.6 assists in his last seven games, providing stability even through the loss of swingman Brandon Ingram, who remains sidelined by a left ankle sprain.
Kuzma has never lacked for confidence, with his recent uptick in productivity validating his certainty while mitigating concerns that James would have to singularly carry the scoring load.
"I tell Kuz all the time one of my favorite things about him is his competitive spirit, and that's something we preach in our culture is competition, and he's got one of the best we have as far as how much he loves to compete," Lakers coach Luke Walton said. "But offensively, he's done a nice job recently of kind of slowing down, letting the game (come to him). Still being aggressive but just slowing down with the actual moves, getting on balance, those types of things.
"It's rewarding as a coach any time your players are getting better. That's what you want to do. We had our time as players, some of us, and now we want to help some young players, a team come together and get better and try to live what their dreams are and become the best they can become.
"So when the players you coach you can see them making that progress and making strides, it's one of the more rewarding things as a coach."