LOS ANGELES — When the Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets tipped off Wednesday night, the Lakers were already knew they made the playoffs. With the Utah Jazz getting smothered by the Memphis Grizzlies, the Lakers were postseason-bound regardless of the outcome against Houston.
The Lakers did not take away from the intensity of the game, however, as they could steal the 7th spot from the Rockets with a win against them.
Both teams had their chances to win the game, and it came down to several key points that allowed them the opportunity.
Wing players: Houston's James Harden dropped a game-high 30 points, while snatching up eight rebounds as well. Harden is naturally a tough man to guard — his size and quickness allow him to attack the hoop constantly. But when he is hitting his jumpshot from outside (four 3-pointers), it is even more difficult to stay with him.
When he gets into the paint, he has an arsenal of euro steps and step-back shots that allow him to get great looks at the basket almost every attempt. Houston's Chandler Parsons added 23 points.
For the Lakers, it was their point-guard Steve Blake who contributed the most from the perimeter players. Steve Blake had 24 points and seven assists, draining four 3-pointers for the Lakers. Steve conducted the offense and made plays for his team when they needed him most.
Fast-break points: The fast break is the Rockets strong suit. They are currently second in NBA in fast-break points. With players like Lin, Harden, and Parsons, scoring points in transition seems easy for Houston. They scored 19 fast-break points to the Lakers' 11, allowing them to go on runs quickly.
Post presence: The post is where the Lakers thrived. Dwight Howard was the defensive anchor — blocking four shots and snatching three steals. Howard also chipped in 16 points and snatched up 18 rebounds for the Lakers.
But the real playmaker for the Lakers was Pau Gasol. Gasol added another triple-double to his belt with 17 points, 20 rebounds and 11 assists. He was everywhere on the glass, getting rebound after rebound. While he scored efficiently, Gasol also found his teammates for easy buckets, making him the most dangerous player on the floor.
In light of Gasol's monster performance, his teammate Kobe Bryant seemed very pleased.
"Can the talk of trading @paugasol come to a cease now??" Kobe Bryant said on Twitter — and it certainly should cease with the way Pau has been playing lately.
Both teams played with a playoff-like passion, which resulted in several lead changes throughout the game, making for a ferocious finish.
It seemed that the game would end with about three seconds left — the Lakers up three with the ball in Jeremy Lin's hand, who was being double-teamed. Lin tossed it quickly to an open Chandler Parsons, who pulled up from 30 at the buzzer.
And he nailed it.
In overtime, the Lakers got contribution from their entire team, but no one more than Dwight Howard. He denied James Harden's attack on the basket twice, allowing the Lakers to steal the win, 99-95. Dwight's defensive performance is what set the tone in the fourth-quarter, and his teammates were quick to recognize his domination.
"We have such a great anchor in Dwight in the paint, and he has been just remarkable back there," Gasol told ESPN after the game, " … a great safety for us pursuing every shot, contesting everything and it makes a big difference."
With the win against the Rockets, the Lakers snatch the 7th seed in Western Conference, playing the San Antonio Spurs in the first round. When the Lakers arrived in the locker room, a simple message was written on the dry-erase board:
"We're in. Way to fight the fight."
Head coach Mike D'Antoni was pleased with the Lakers progress, especially from the beginning of the season.
"From where we were 20 or 30 games ago, a seven (seed) is pretty good," D'Antoni said on ESPN. "We shouldn't have been in that spot in the first place, but it's our fault."
The Lakers begin their postseason Sunday in San Antonio against the Spurs.
For additional Lakers news, you can follow Mitch Kunzler on Twitter at: @MitchKunzler