LOS ANGELES — Nobody taller than 6-foot-6 was in Houston’s starting lineup, and a heavily bearded guard lost the opening tip. Nobody bigger than 6-foot-7 Robert Covington played for the Rockets in a game between division leaders at Staples Center.
Because Russell Westbrook went wild and Covington came up big late in his debut, the Rockets’ first experiment in extremely small ball was a large success — and the hulking Los Angeles Lakers came up short.
Westbrook scored 41 points and Covington hit two clutch late 3-pointers while getting 14 points and eight rebounds, leading Houston to a 121-111 win over Los Angeles on Thursday night.
James Harden managed just 14 points, but Westbrook picked up the scoring slack before Covington had several big moments down the stretch. The final surge sent the Rockets to a major road win in their first attempt at playing without a center in coach Mike D’Antoni’s latest brainstorm.
“Every time you try something different, these guys have got to believe in it,” D’Antoni said. “And this helps a lot, because if you come in here and get spanked and they’re all little, it’s like, ‘Oh, maybe we can’t do this.’ So they’re fired up to keep trying. It’s just one game, but the confidence is good.”
Anthony Davis and the Lakers capitalized inside on the Rockets’ diminutive defenders, but Houston still rallied from a late four-point deficit and ended the game on a 19-5 surge highlighted by two of Covington’s four 3-pointers. The veteran was acquired from Minnesota on Wednesday in a four-team trade, and he tried to adjust quickly to being the tallest player on the floor for his new squad.
“Means a lot, just being able to come in and make a major impact,” Covington said. “It just shows that my coaches and my teammates believe in me.”
Davis had 32 points and 13 rebounds, and LeBron James had 18 points, 15 assists and nine rebounds in a meeting of first-place teams with sharply contrasting approaches. The Lakers didn’t blame the loss on the Rockets’ unusual lineup, but instead on their lack of execution in several key stretches.
“You’ve just got to communicate,” James said. “James is getting a lot of eyes on him, but Russ was doing what he is definitely capable of doing. He was wonderful tonight.”
Harden took just 10 shots in his follow-up to back-to-back 40-point games, but Westbrook returned from a one-game absence with a sprained thumb and had a huge performance in the Rockets’ fourth straight win.
Although Davis, Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee had a relatively easy time getting shots down low and grabbing rebounds in traffic, the Rockets’ small lineup created the offensive spacing and ball movement desired above all else by D’Antoni.
“They hit some tough shots down the stretch, and we made some costly turnovers at the end,” Davis said.
The Lakers got plenty of simple baskets down low, but the Rockets went 15 for 29 on 3-pointers in the first three quarters to keep it close.
Covington came up with a key block of Davis’ shot with about 3:30 to play after Houston reclaimed the lead, and he hit a clutch 3-pointer from the corner with 2:42 to play.