On New Year's Eve, Julius Randle provided a glimpse of what he could be in 2018 and beyond if he can maximize his potential.
In Houston, Randle relentlessly and routinely rounded his defender without regard and went coast to coast against the entire Houston Rockets' team without a care. The small ball starting center for the Los Angeles Lakers finished with 29 points, 15 rebounds and six assists in 33 minutes, all of which were season highs for the 23-year-old Dallas native.
Unfortunately for the Lakers, Randle fouled out before the conclusion of Sunday's double-overtime thriller, and his absence combined with Chris Paul's cunning led Houston to a 148-142 victory.
Lakers coach Luke Walton was short three starters, as Brook Lopez and Lonzo Ball were on the shelf with injuries and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was unable to leave the state of California for legal reasons. For the second game in a row, Walton started Randle at center, while Josh Hart took Caldwell-Pope's spot and Tyler Ennis earned a rare start at point guard.
Ennis finished the night with 20 points and 11 rebounds, as Walton's decision to play a pure point guard paid off in a more stable offense and a better tempo to the Lakers' play on the whole. Hart, meanwhile, made nine of his 13 shots and finished with 26 points and six rebounds in 37 minutes.
Unfortunately for Walton's Lakers, Hart, Randle and Ennis all fouled out and watched the conclusion of the close contest sitting next to their coach, rather than on the court.
Unlike the previous game against the LA Clippers on Friday night, the Lakers came ready to play on Sunday night and took a halftime lead into the locker room after scoring 72 points before the intermission.
With Randle leading the way and Ennis helping push the pace, the Lakers attacked the Rockets' defense and attempted to run the score up on Mike D'Antoni's ball club, which takes some doing.
Led by James Harden, the Rockets got back into the game in the second half, but the early 2018 MVP favorite pulled up lame and walked off the court gingerly with 44 seconds remaining in regulation. Harden would not return and finished the night with 40 points and 11 assists in 41 mintutes.
Paul stepped up in Harden's absence and kept Houston answering back for every jab the Lakers landed in the extra basketball periods. Every time the Rockets looked like they were wobbling, Paul would find an open shooter or find the bottom of the net. The long-time LA Clipper finished with 28 points, 10 assists and six rebounds in 42 minutes.
Former Laker Trevor Ariza added 26 points for the Rockets in the victory and tied for a game-high 45 minutes with Ennis and Brandon Ingram.
While the Lakers lost their sixth game in a row and ninth game out of their last 10 contests over all, this loss featured a competitive group fighting against one of the best team in the NBA on the road. All five of the Lakers' starters scored in double figures and four of the five starters scored over 20 points, as the ball moved to the tune of 31 assists on 53 made baskets for the purple and gold.
In a contrast of styles, the Rockets attempted 52 three-pointers, which was more than double the Lakers' attempts from distance. LA shot 40 percent from beyond the arc, though, and rookie Kyle Kuzma hit five of his 10 long range attempts on the night.
Instead, LA did its damage inside and outscored Houston 82-58 in the painted area. Even with Harden being best friends with the referee's whistle, the Rockets only shot two more foul shots than the Lakers on the night. However, the Rockets claimed six extra points at the line than LA, as the Lakers continue to be the worst free throw shooting team in the NBA. In a game decided by the smallest of margins and requiring two overtime periods to decide a winner, one extra made free throw could have been the difference between winning and losing.
Finishing off 2017 with a victory would have obviously been more ideal for the Lakers, but Friday night in Houston was an impressive defeat. If such a thing did exist, the Lakers would arguably be the best team in the NBA at battling elite opponents to the end but falling just short, as this was the Lakers' third overtime defeat. The previous two overtime defeats came against the Golden State Warriors.
Now 11-24 on the season, the Lakers will wake up in ice cold Minnesota for Jan. 1, 2018 and face the Timberwolves on the second night of a back-to-back. The NBA schedule makers did not exactly take pity on the Lakers on this occasion. On New Year's Eve, the temperature in Minneapolis was -12 degrees Fahrenheit, which is 40 degrees below freezing.