The Never Boring Rockets May Have Met Their Match

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The Houston Rockets managed to make things interesting in the fourth quarter, which is one thing the Rockets do well: make things interesting. They reinvent offensive schemes and engineer big trades and offer nightly rebukes to conventional wisdom. Houston’s style may be polarizing, but the Rockets are not a boring franchise.

Now, two months since the Rockets’ arrival at Walt Disney World for the N.B.A.’s restart, their playoff run is coming unglued. After spending about an hour-and-a-half scuffling through some of its worst basketball of the season, at precisely the worst moment with the most at stake, Houston staged a late rally on Thursday night before falling to the Los Angeles Lakers, 110-100, in Game 4 of their Western Conference semifinals series.

If fans watching from home were left dumbfounded, so were some of the team’s central figures: How could the Rockets have come out so flat?

“That’s a good question,” James Harden said.

“I don’t have an explanation for you,” Russell Westbrook said.

“Just a lack of spirit,” said Rockets Coach Mike D’Antoni, whose team trails in the best-of-seven series, 3-1.

The loss came as the league continued to investigate an alleged violation of the safety protocols in its so-called bubble by one of Houston’s players, Danuel House Jr., a reserve who missed Games 3 and 4 of the series. The team cited “personal reasons” on its injury report as the cause of House’s absence.

On Friday, the league announced that House had left the bubble — and that his season was finished — after its investigation found that he had invited an unauthorized guest to his hotel room on Tuesday, in direct violation of league rules.

Following Thursday’s loss, D’Antoni said he was not going to use the situation as an excuse for his team’s poor effort. That was admirable, but there is little doubt that it has been a distraction — and there is the small matter of House’s importance to the team. He scored 13 points off the bench in Game 2. The Rockets could have used him in Game 4.

Then again, they could have used a lot things against the Lakers on Thursday. An extra player. Stilts to defend Anthony Davis. Perhaps a postponement.

The Rockets trailed by as many as 23 points. They scored 2 points on fast breaks. And while Frank Vogel, the Lakers’ coach, countered the Rockets’ small-ball approach by benching JaVale McGee, who typically starts at center, Los Angeles still outrebounded Houston by 52-26.

“There should’ve been a sense of urgency on everybody’s part,” Westbrook said.

Here were some scenes from a debacle:

  • In the third quarter, the Lakers’ Alex Caruso fouled the Rockets’ Austin Rivers, who went to the free-throw line but not before yapping back and forth with Caruso’s teammate, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Rivers made both free throws, but the episode seemed like a lot of work. The Lakers proceeded to inbound the ball and break the Rockets’ full-court press in about 2.7 nanoseconds before Davis finished an alley-oop so ferociously that the ball nearly bounced off the court into outer space.

  • LeBron James opened the fourth quarter for the Lakers by going end-to-end for a layup as the Rockets watched him glide on by as if he were riding a Schwinn.

  • The Rockets’ P.J. Tucker, a 6-foot-5 forward who has the thankless task of matching up against Davis, found himself later in the fourth quarter defending the Lakers’ Rajon Rondo after a switch. Tucker lunged at Rondo near the 3-point line, then Rondo dribbled past him and discovered to his delight — if not to his total surprise, given the events of the evening — that no one was within 10 feet of him. It had to be one of the most wide-open half-court layups of his career.

No one, though, had a more challenging time than Harden, who picked up three early fouls and was double-teamed by defenders whenever he had the ball. Those double-teams came in all shapes and sizes: Caruso and Davis, Caldwell-Pope and James. It was a constant canvas of yellow jerseys for Harden, who scored 21 points (most of them from the free-throw line) while shooting just 2 of 11 from the field. He also had 10 assists as he tried to facilitate for his teammates.

“They’re playing real well, running around like crazy,” D’Antoni said of the Lakers.

The Rockets miraculously trimmed the Lakers’ lead to 5 before Caruso sealed the win by burying a 3-pointer with 35.2 seconds left. For Houston, that late spurt — the team was sparked by reserves like Rivers and Ben McLemore — offered some cause for optimism amid an otherwise bleak night in the bubble.

D’Antoni also alluded to some recent history: The Denver Nuggets trailed the Utah Jazz, 3-1, in their first-round series before advancing with three straight wins.

“We fought, which is good, and we know what we have to do,” Westbrook said of the fourth quarter. “It’s going to take a lot of effort. It’s going to take everyone being uncomfortable in their role and making müddet we understand that we have to sacrifice some of the things we love to do. But we’ve got to scramble. That gives us the best chance to win games.”

At this point, they do not have much of a choice.

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