LeBron James vs. Dillion Brooks, Part 2: A running diary of a Lakers-Rockets thriller

LOS ANGELES — On Sunday night, the Los Angeles Lakers beat the Houston Rockets, 105-104, at Crypto.com Arena. To follow the much-anticipated game, reporters Kelly Iko and Jovan Buha kept a running dialogue during the matchup.

Kelly Iko: Anthony Davis wasn’t on the floor for the first installment of this “series” (both teams will see each other again in early December), so the Dillon Brooks/LeBron James antics took over last month. But both the Rockets and Lakers have had to incorporate several new players into their rosters and rotations. What’s that process been like in Los Angeles so far?

Jovan Buha: It’s been an up-and-down process, as their record indicates. (LA entered this game with a 7-6 record).

The Lakers have dealt with some notable injuries, including to two of their three best perimeter defenders (Jarred Vanderbilt and Gabe Vincent), which has slowed the process and affected how they fare against quicker and more athletic teams. That was one of several reasons why they struggled so much against Houston in that first matchup.

As for how their new pieces have fit in specifically, Cam Reddish has been a revelation since moving into the starting lineup earlier this month. He led the league in steals in November and has thrived in a simplified offensive role as a spot-up shooter and transition threat. Christian Wood has been surprisingly adept in the areas he was projected to struggle (as a defender and rebounder) while not adjusting well offensively to being a fourth option, in most cases.

Taurean Prince has struggled offensively after a hot shooting start — I’m surprised he’s remained in the starting lineup, to be honest. Jaxson Hayes is a change-of-pace rim-runner who can swing a quarter with his energy, but can’t stay out of foul trouble. Vincent has only played in four games and is 1-for-14 on 3s, but his value as a 3-and-D combo guard is well-established at this point. He’ll help when he returns, which will be at least a few weeks from now.

What have you seen from the Rockets’ newcomers and how they fit?

Iko: Starting with Brooks is appropriate, given that he’s been able to add a physical, aggressive edge to Houston’s defense and how quickly they’ve taken to his style. It’s an impact that doesn’t always show up statistically — the Rockets are better with him on the floor, but it’s not a staggering difference — but he allows them to switch more comfortably and gives them someone to stick on tough matchups. He’s also cleaned up his shot profile some, taking more efficient looks that have parlayed into his highest-ever 3-point percentage (50 percent).

Fred VanVleet has been a positive influence as well, bringing a stabilizing presence and allowing Houston to have control in half-court settings while also being a solid point-of-attack defender. Jock Landale has struggled with consistency in a reduced role, while Jeff Green has been a much-needed floor spacer and late-game defensive closer (Rockets are a +7.2 with him on the floor). Aaron Holiday has also stepped in and filled the void left by rookie Amen Thompson’s early ankle injury.

Going back to Davis, since I believed he’d be such a difference-maker in this game, what’s going on with his inconsistency? On his day, he’s one of the league’s most terrifying two-way forces. But from the outside looking in, it seems like he’s constantly trying to find his sweet spot within Darvin Ham’s schemes, which is an odd saying for a player that’s been a Laker for five seasons.

“He changes a lot,” Rockets forward Tari Eason said of Davis to The Athletic before the game. “He’s a former All-Star, one of the best players in this league when healthy. It definitely changes a lot guarding him, but our principles still say the same. We’re just gonna have to go out there and guard him.”

Buha: I want to clarify that Davis’ inconsistency is solely on the offensive end and not the defensive side of the ball, where his dominance continues to be under-discussed. There are several reasons for that: the Lakers’ offensive inconsistency (they were 22nd in points scored per 100 possessions coming into this game), the increased offensive roles of D’Angelo Russell and Austin Reaves, Davis’ immense defensive workload and his recently injured hip.

I expected him to have his hands full tonight with Alperen Şengün, who is one of the league’s best young big men and a monster in the post. Şengün is the type of skilled, strong center – similar to Nikola Jokić and Domantas Sabonis, his two most common comparisons – that has given Davis problems this season.

First Quarter 

Iko: Not surprised the Lakers’ first few possessions went to Davis, and Şengün might be in for a long night. He’s such a matchup nightmare when he’s on. Already has six points, three rebounds and an assist. Coming into tonight, the Rockets were a bottom-10 team in rim protection, a weakness I expected the Lakers to spam.

At the other end of the floor, when Şengün has the ball in the low post, Davis’ length takes away so much space, forcing Şengün to resort to his push shot and floater.  It’s a fascinating chess match given Şengün’s promising start to the season and the stylistic difference with Davis. But it’s a refreshing reminder that the center position ain’t dead yet.

Buha: The two biggest differences I see between these teams early are their pace and 3-point shooting. The Rockets are running and getting into early offense even after Laker makes, whereas Los Angeles is often walking the ball up the floor and slowly getting into their actions. This is leading to Houston finding their advantages and mismatches and the Lakers setting for contested shots later in the shot clock.

Then, when running their half-court offense, the Rockets are loaded with capable shooters, stretching the Lakers’ defense out and forcing them into difficult decisions. On the other end, the Rockets aren’t concerned with LA’s shooting — they’re currently a bottom-five 3-point shooting team — allowing them to pack the paint and load up against James and Davis.

Iko: I thought Houstion would struggle as a 3-point shooting team, but they’re middle of the pack in makes and efficiency so far. I’m not sure how many people had Brooks being the team’s best shooter over the first 10 games of the year, though.

Brooks, who was loudly booed during the player intros, has had a relatively quiet start to the evening (quiet meaning no antics yet). Over/under five “incidents” with LeBron tonight?

Buha: I’ll take the slight under, but I don’t feel great about it.

Iko: Houston’s ball movement has been really impressive lately. It seems like they’re making an effort to keep moving the ball and pass up good shots for great ones.

Not sure if you saw this since you’re at home recovering from a torn Achilles, but Brooks drained his first triple of the game and blew a passionate kiss to the crowd.

Buha: They replayed it on TV. Dillon the Villain is nothing if not a showman — and committed to the bit.

Iko: Jalen Green had a wide-open Tari Eason in the corner, but opted against passing it and turned it over. I know Rockets coach Ime Udoka wasn’t happy about it on the sidelines. He’s gotten on the third-year guard a few times this season for his decision-making. “Youth is not an excuse” he’s said repeatedly.

For the final possession, LeBron checked back into the game and Brooks did as well. Solid defensive stance from Brooks challenging LeBron for 94 feet, resulting in a missed layup. A frustrated LeBron let the officials know his dismay at Brooks’ physicality. Houston leads by eight. Watch this space

Second Quarter

Iko: Lakers go on a 6-0 run in 90 seconds and Udoka jumps to call a timeout. The Rockets have gone small with Jabari Smith Jr. and Jeff Green in the frontcourt against the Lakers’ length — Wood, LeBron and Rui Hachimura. Houston wants to switch with their group, but LeBron knows how to pick apart even the tightest of defenses, as we’ve seen here. How much can the Lakers rely on their size and weaponize it?

Buha: This is typically the time the Lakers make a run — these LeBron-led bench units. They play with pace and speed and they’re pretty big with Reaves at point guard and James, Hachimura and Reddish on the wings. Unlike the first quarter, the Lakers are getting out in transition and getting to the rim, attacking the Rockets’ lack of size and rim protection on the floor.

Iko: We have our first incident. Brooks bumped and pushed LeBron before getting the ball, but Bron scored the layup and flexed his shoulders while looking in Brooks’ direction. At the other end, Brooks hits his second triple of the game to a sea of boos. I love this stupid league.

Buha: For as good of a defender as Brooks is, and as strong as he is, there’s not much he — or anyone — can do when LeBron puts his head down and bulldozes his way to the rim. The Lakers were upset at the end of the first quarter after what they felt was a clear foul on Brooks on James’ layup attempt at the end of the frame. After missing that attempt, James decided he wasn’t going to leave it up to the refs and initiated contact to create an easier look.

Iko: Rockets going back to their traditional lineup, seeing as the small-ball group didn’t get it done. Immediately, the VanVleet/Şengün two-man game splits Los Angeles open down the middle. Şengün’s ability to command attention in his third season is a different sort of gravity than say, a shooter like Steph Curry, but his playmaking allows for a continuous wheel-turning in the halfcourt offense. Easy points for Smith, who’s looking spry tonight.

Buha: LeBron exited the game midway through the second quarter and is having his left calf worked on by his longtime trainer Mike Mancias. James has been on the injury report with a calf contusion since their matchup in Phoenix last week. That’s something to monitor moving forward, though James has a Cyborg-like ability to play through injury.

Iko: Udoka called Smith and Green to speak to him at midcourt while VanVleet took the technical free throw. I think he wants them to stretch the Lakers’ defense out some with Green handling the ball. The next possession saw just that, some Green/Smith two-man game that looked intriguing until Davis swatted the attempt away. Welp. Davis looks fantastic tonight, dominant on both ends.

LeBron is set to check back in and Brooks is already waiting for him at the scorer’s table like a brother picking up his sibling from school. These two would love each other if they ever played on the same team.

Buha: Crisis averted for the Lakers (for now). Still, I wonder if LeBron ends up settling for jumpers more in the second half and/or ends up operating more as a facilitator than as a scorer. (Update: LeBron immediately started attacking the paint.)

Iko: Şengün took an interesting defensive position against Davis in the post (The Ringer’s Michael Pina wrote a great profile of him this week that mentioned the Turkish big man being able to do a full splits), but forced an offensive foul on Davis. Can you do the splits, old man Jovan?

Buha: I cannot — especially in my current physical state. I can barely walk.

Iko: LeBron is having his way now with Brooks, scoring on consecutive drives and is up to 14 points in the half. Brooks might have won Round 1, but Round 2 is definitely going The King’s way.

Brooks hit another 3 right as I was typing. He’s shooting 4-for-12 from the field, but is Houston’s joint-highest scorer with 11 points and has three triples to lead the way. Rockets up 55-49 at the break.

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LeBron James and Dillon Brooks have been playing games within games. (Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)

Third Quarter

Iko: That’s two incidents! Brooks got a little too close for LeBron’s liking and after shoving Brooks away, picked up a technical foul. During the official timeout, LeBron went over to chat with the official.

Buha: My under is starting to look suspect. This is getting chippy. The two are continuing to go at each other as LeBron is having his finger taped.

Iko: The Lakers have gone right back to their home cooking, Davis going to work on Şengün. Give Şengün credit. He’s trying different things with Davis.

To make things worse, Şengün just picked up his fourth foul. We have our first Jock Landale sighting of the evening, and Davis promptly hits a fadeaway jumper on him. My goodness.

Buha: The Rockets can’t single-cover Davis anymore. He’s cooking Şengün and Landale one-on-one. LA is smartly putting D’Angelo Russell, their best 3-point shooter on the floor, on the same side of the floor as Davis, making him one pass away in case the Rockets double with his defender (VanVleet).

This game has turned since Şengün exited due to foul trouble.

Iko: The worrying X-factor for Houston: Şengün’s absence. Landale doesn’t look comfortable out there. He’s not catching the ball in the right areas, looks hesitant to protect the rim and isn’t a floor spacer.

Brooks dunked the ball and slapped the backboard loudly. Surprised he didn’t get hit with a tech.

Buha: LeBron and AD have taken over this quarter, putting the Lakers ahead by four, 68-64, with 5:24 left. They’ve combined to score 16 of the Lakers’ 19 points, playing with force, drawing fouls and getting into the bonus. No one else on LA has had it offensively tonight, but it hasn’t mattered thus far.

Iko: Uncle Jeff quietly has 13 points tonight, a boost for Houston considering Landale wasn’t able to give them much. Green also hasn’t capsized against Davis, a throwback to their playoff battles in the Orlando bubble. There’s still some juice in those legs. The Rockets need Jalen Green to get going, though. He only six points tonight for the explosive guard. He’s struggled with the Lakers’ physicality and length.

And that sound was Brooks hitting his fourth 3 of the night. He’s their leading scorer with 18 points. I don’t get it.

Buha: The Lakers have continued their strategy from their playoff series against Memphis of playing off of Brooks and putting smaller players on him to try to goad him into taking ill-advised shots. That strategy, while typically sound, hasn’t worked tonight, as Brooks has not only made his 3s, but also scored against smaller defenders (mainly Russell) on the block.

Iko: Bron continues to pick Houston apart. He’s taking advantage of their propensity to swtich matchups with his vision and continues to win the battle with Brooks. The fourth quarter is going to be a doozy.

Buha: LeBron did the too-small gesture to the Lakers’ bench after scoring on Brooks. I’d say that counts as our third run-in of the evening. You rarely see LeBron trash-talk an opponent this way. The Lakers are up, 81-75, at the end of three quarters.

Fourth Quarter

Iko: Another up-and-under layup for LeBron over Brooks to start, and The King looks toward his bench and smirks. Isn’t this man 40 years old? This is what the game is all about.

Buha: The Lakers’ offensive approach in the second half  — led by James and Davis — has completely shifted the tenor of this game. They’re the aggressors, forcing the Rockets to play on their heels as LA gets downhill and living at the free-throw line (a 23-10 advantage in terms of attempts currently).

Iko: Şengün with an impressive dive and finish against LeBron, didn’t see that one coming. Houston is going to him repeatedly in the fourth quarter and it’s paying off. The more reps VanVleet and Şengün get, the more their chemistry grows. Şengün’s quirky game makes him a tough cover — his footwork, his processor and his vision. Seventeen points, seven rebounds and five assists in this one.

Buha: I’m pretty sure a Lakers fan tore their Achilles attempting a half-court shot during the timeout. The LA injury bug is serious. I wish him well.

Iko: Huge throwdown for LeBron after a miscommunication on (you guessed it) a Şengün/Brooks switch and a point toward his bench. The momentum has shifted in Los Angeles’ direction and Houston is struggling to adapt on the fly. The Lakers lead, 92-85, with six minutes to go. Can the Rockets fight back?

Buha: With Anthony Davis in foul trouble with five fouls, LA using Hayes at center, which is a dramatic defensive dropoff. Houston scores on back-to-back possessions to make this a two-point game.

Iko: A huge triple from Brooks, his fifth of the night, keeps the Rockets within striking distance.


Buha: Davis is back in two minutes later. LA can’t survive defensively without him.

Another huge shot LeBron — a catch-and-shoot 3 on the left wing as the shot clock expires. The Lakers up by four points with 3:25 left. Timeout Houston.

Iko: Hard foul from Brooks sends LeBron to the floor. The officials are checking to see if it meets the criteria for a flagrant foul. With Houston trailing by two points with 2:25 to go, this could be a crucial call.

(Foul deemed a common foul)

It’s 100 up. One minute to go. And right on cue, Şengün draws Davis’ sixth foul and he’s out of the game. What a play.

Buha: Davis fouling out is huge, especially if this game goes to overtime. James and Davis are the only two Lakers who have had it going offensively tonight. I’d have to favor Houston if this goes to an extra period.

Iko: Another game in LA, another big 3 late in the game. This time, Austin Reaves is the guy. The entire arena stood to their feet expecting LeBron to take the shot but he made the right play, just as he has for decades.

It’s Rockets ball, down two with 10 seconds to go. I wonder who gets the final shot. I’d dump it down to Şengün and let him draw bodies to see if VanVleet is open on the perimeter. If not, they trust him enough to be aggressive.

And that’s exactly what they did. Şengün got the ball with LeBron on him and was able to back him down and finish over him. All tied up at 104 with four seconds to go, Lakers ball. And we all know who’s getting the rock.

Buha: That’s where the Lakers feel AD’s absence arguably the most. Şengün took LeBron to the rim, similar to the way he did against Hachimura on the previous possession. Lakers are likely going to LeBron to try to win this.

Iko: Everyone on Houston’s sideline was screaming at the top of their lungs during LeBron’s free throws with 1.9 seconds remaining, reminding the Rockets on the floor that they were out of timeouts. After LeBron split his free throws, Sengun threw the ball to Brooks who threw up a half-court heave. No good. Rockets lose another close game, 105-104. Hell of a basketball game.

And a hell of a conversation, my good brother Jovan. Thanks for doing this, rest up and see you soon.

(Top photo of LeBron James and Dillon Brooks: Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)

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